Protesting Modi at Madison Square Garden

The Indian prime minister's promise of a bright economic future bought a community's collective amnesia

October 7, 2014 6:00AM ET

While newly anointed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to an adoring crowd of thousands in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Sept. 28, I was one of a smaller crowd protesting across the street. We were there to show that exceptions to Modi fever exist among South Asians in the United States in the face of many who support the prime minister despite — or perhaps because of — his right-wing beliefs.

In front of the venue, some Modi supporters shouted, “Jai, Bajrang Dal!” a reference to one of the most extreme organizations of the Hindu right, involved in, among other things, perpetrating violence against Muslims in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Others beat drums to chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” With a handful of protesters, I crossed the street to enter the celebrating crowd and was quickly surrounded by a flood of saffron, a sacred color in Hinduism now usurped as a nationalist symbol of Hindutva, the right-wing ideology that holds that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation, with non-Hindus marked as descendants of foreign invaders. The experience was disturbing, not least because those surrounding me were middle-class Gujarati Hindus like the ones I grew up with.

My parents both come from Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, the Indian state that Modi led at the time of the riots. The evidence showed that the attacks were planned and that, at the very least, Modi knew they were happening and did not intervene. The Modi government’s official line has been that the attacks were an unfortunate retaliation for 52 Hindu activists’ being burned to death in 2002 on a train that had stopped in the city of Godhra. The so-called retaliation included the murder of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of Parliament, who had called every Indian politician he knew to try to save himself, his family and people from the surrounding community who had taken shelter in his home. He was hacked to death and burned by the Hindu mob he had attempted to placate. Today Modi’s supporters and mainstream media commentators alike urge those who continue to bring up the riots to move on, suggesting that the attacks are no longer relevant to the story of India’s economic rise under the new Modi-led government.

The prime minister’s supporters assert that India’s Supreme Court has cleared him. This is a fallacy (being repeated in the press) that is based in part on an interview Modi gave to Reuters misrepresenting the findings of a special investigative team appointed by the court to probe the attacks. By some accounts, the team actually attempted to cover up evidence. Even so, its report acknowledged hundreds of documented phone intercepts showing that the Gujarat Central Police Command (under the state government’s direct control) received constant updates about the killings during those three days and kept asking the police on the spot not to intervene. Still, the team ultimately concluded that there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi.

Despite his self-styling as India's savior, what Modi actually represents is the rise of a cynical brand of right-wing politics in India.

The fervor of the crowd outside Madison Square Garden was unsurprising, given the amount of money Modi and the Hindu right have raised from the Indian diaspora in the U.S. Indeed, international media tend to easily explain Modi’s support here by pointing to diasporic Hindus being driven by a fundamentalist ideology. In many cases this is not untrue, but it tells only part of the story. For instance, the crowd of supporters on Sunday was very similar to the Gujaratis of my family’s community in my youth — solidly lower middle class and aspiring to much more. Standing there, I could understand some of their fervor. This was the first time a sitting Indian prime minister descended from his ivory tower in Delhi to speak with a bunch of immigrants just barely holding on to their middle-class identities, employing a language of struggle and aspiration as no Indian prime minister had before.

Still, it is difficult to explain how an individual can buy a community’s collective amnesia with promises of a multitrillion-dollar economy — unless we account for India’s notoriously difficult bureaucracy, powerful corporate backing and the appeal of an ideology that has an easy answer for everything. It is also difficult to understand how anyone, including the press, could argue that Modi’s charisma and descriptions of India’s bright economic future effectively erase the massive human rights violations of 2002. This exhortation to move on also rings hollow in the face of the crimes that the Hindu right continued to perpetrate in India after 2002. This includes the killings, rapes and mass displacement of Muslims in the town of Muzaffarnagar in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013; the worsening environmental record of Gujarat during Modi’s terms as chief minister; the continuation of a crackdown on social movements that are trying to prevent the massive land grab of tribal Indian lands by multinational mining and logging companies; and the looming persecution of political dissenters, environmental activists, religious minorities and lower-caste people now that the Hindu right controls the central government. Modi and his constituency have embraced such multipronged assaults on India, combining anti-minority politics with a corporatizing agenda.

Unsurprisingly, Modi’s support in the U.S. has also come from Republican politicians and the tea party. In May, Vice reported on Modi’s embrace of Indian Americans for Freedom, a Chicago-based Republican super PAC run by wealthy Chicago-area businessman Shalabh Kumar. The day after Modi’s speech, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a member of the tea party caucus, told WNYC he was “impressed” by Modi’s promises to make India more inviting for businesses by cutting “through that red tape, you know, like you’d cut through a Gordian knot.” Such oversimplifications threaten to elide administrative corruption, bureaucratic inefficiencies and hard-won protections for Indian workers in one fell capitalist swoop and display a shared rhetoric between the new Indian government and some of the United States’ most extreme fiscal conservatives.

Despite his self-styling as India’s savior, what Modi actually represents is the rise of a cynical brand of right-wing politics in India. But this cynicism seemed lost on Sunday’s crowd, when a woman stuck her finger in my face shouting, “Loser! Loser! Loser!” Her message was plain: “We won. Why are you taking that away from us? We won!” On Facebook, the photos of Indians flooding the streets around Madison Square Garden were too numerous to count. This groundswell of support seems to require no explanation or logic. The consequences of such amnesia, on the other hand, will require a higher order of reckoning for a long time to come.

Svati P. Shah is an associate professor in the department of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her book "Street Corner Secrets: Sex Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai," is an ethnography of sexual commerce and migration among women working in Mumbai's informal sectors. Her current research focuses on queer and trans movements and the politics of class in India.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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