Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has such a dubious past that the Bush Administration prohibited him from coming to the United States.
Activists and scholars expressed deep concern when President Obama reached out to Modi, who took charge of India on Monday as head of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“The President invited Narendra Modi to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship,” the White House stated after Modi’s electoral victory in India in mid-May.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a quasi-governmental body, had recommended that Modi be kept out of the United States for facilitating a 2002 pogrom as the head of the Indian state of Gujarat that killed thousands of people, mainly Muslim. Acting on the recommendation, the Bush Administration in 2005 issued a visa ban on Modi,
The Commission tried to put the best face on Obama's course change.
“USCIRF has a longstanding concern about the BJP’s and Narendra Modi’s association with Hindu ultranationalist groups, as well as allegations of his complicity in the Gujarat riots,” the organization’s vice chair, Katrina Lantos Swett, told The Progressive. “While USCIRF’s concerns about incoming Prime Minister Modi are ongoing, our ultimate focus is not on him but on India’s continued failure to uphold religious freedom and to adequately address situations of violence.”
Modi has his political roots in the Rashtriya Swamyasewak Sangh (RSS), a group with hair-raising antecedents. The organization is the fountainhead of Modi’s BJP.
“Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements, and like its 1930s fascist models it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes: the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the arm, which is held horizontally over the chest,” writes British journalist William Dalrymple in the New Statesman. “The RSS sees this as an attempt to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who, so the theory goes, will form the basis of a revival of a golden age of national strength and racial purity. The BJP was founded as the political wing of the RSS and most senior BJP figures have an RSS background, holding posts in both organizations.”
The assassin of none other than Mahatma Gandhi, an extremist named Nathuram Godse, had been a member of the RSS. But all this doesn’t seem to have embarrassed Modi about his closeness with the organization.
“I got the inspiration to live for the nation from the RSS,” Modi stated recently. “I learned to live for others, and not for myself. I owe it all to the RSS.”
Indeed, the RSS backed Modi strongly in the hope that he will scuttle investigations against members of the RSS and like-minded organizations linked to the killings of more than 100 people.
During his campaign for prime minister, Modi sent mixed messages.
“It is instructive that not once in his campaign did Modi reach out to the minorities to assuage any misgivings they may have had about him as a prime minister,” editorialized Economic and Political Weekly, a leading Indian journal. “There is therefore good reason to worry about the future of a pluralistic India under a Modi government that will enjoy a commanding majority in Parliament but without a single Muslim member of Parliament in its ranks.”
Modi has another prominent side: a pro-business worldview. His supposed achievements on the economic front in Gujarat persuaded a large portion of the electorate to vote for him, especially in the face of an Indian economy in the doldrums.
Trinity College Professor Vijay Prashad notes Modi's committment to privatization and globalization. “The cozy relationship between the Modi government in Gujarat and big business will now be scaled up to the national level," Prashad told The Progressive.
At the same time, Prashad has deep concerns about Modi and his party’s social platform.
“The BJP is going to push a decidedly majoritarian agenda cast as ‘equal rights,’ ” he says. “They have already begun this. The social justice parties will have to fight back, and so in the process rebuild their base. Anything less will be catastrophic.”
U.S.-based groups are watching Modi with trepidation.
“Human rights, religious freedom and equality before the law are guaranteed by the Constitution of India,” Ahsan Khan, president of the Indian American Muslim Council, tells The Progressive. “Our goal will be to safeguard these rights for every citizen of India. We will work with the Indian Diaspora, Indian institutions as well as institutions in the United States to put up a united defense of these universal values.”