Where is India under Modi headed?

If not Theresa May, the accompanying media ought to note the gross human rights violations and crackdowns on dissent that abound.

Prime Minister Theresa May holds a meeting with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the second day of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. Stefan Rousseau/PA Images.

Britain's recently elected Prime Minister Theresa May, post-Brexit, has chosen to visit India from November 6, her first foray outside Europe after taking office. She ought to have headed to Washington given Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States but presumably thanks to the presidential election due on November 8 that was ruled out. However, why did she choose India as her first port of call outside of Europe even as her country is witness to a rising spate of racist attacks including against people of Indian and other southern Asian as well as Black and Coloured origins?

The former colony which is home to the second largest population – 1.2 billion, behind China's 1.4 billion – has been pursuing pro-big-business policies since the 1990s at least. And under the current government of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, the country has been moving rapidly rightwards.

While domestic big business is being favoured with gifts of tax concessions and vast tracts of mineral-rich forests, mountains and land (seized from indigenous peoples), foreign domestic investment even in retail commerce is being encouraged by the very same party that previously criticised such moves while it was in the opposition.

Prime Minister May perhaps sees an opening and wants to engage with the Modi government in order to land some lucrative contracts, especially of the defence kind: much warmongering noises have been reverberating around New Delhi since an attack that left 17 soldiers dead at an army base in Uri in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Prime Minister May perhaps wants to engage with the Modi government in order to land some lucrative contracts, especially of the defence kind.

Given May’s track record thus far, especially in the face of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in post-Brexit Britain, it is unlikely that she will raise thorny issues such as the massive human rights abuses taking place in many parts of India as also in Indian-occupied Kashmir in the north and Manipur to the northeast of India.  

The media contingent accompanying her ought to look beyond the May-Modi talks and report on what has befallen the country that preens itself as the “world’s largest democracy”.

In Kashmir alone since the anti-India uprising escalated following the killing of a militant named Burhan Wani in early July, more than 100 Kashmiri men, women and children have been killed by the Indian state. The forces’ use of pellet guns has caused massive injuries and left scores of people – including innocent children – blinded. As many as 15,000 people have been injured and 8,000 have been arrested.

In the capital itself, a young Muslim student named Najeeb Ahmed has been missing since October 15 from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University but its authorities have made little effort, if any, in helping to trace the 27-year-old. Earlier this year, student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on trumped up charges of sedition, sparking protests from beyond India’s shores. Another ‘sedition’ accused is Professor S.A.R. Geelani, who had been teaching in a college under Delhi University. His crime: an address at the Press Club during which he spoke on the anniversary of the 9 February 2013 hanging of fellow-Kashmiri Afzal Guru – almost entirely wrongly convicted in connection with a mysterious attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

In January, a brilliant Dalit PhD scholar at the Hyderabad Central University (in southern India) named Rohith Vemula committed suicide having faced months of hounding by the university authorities and a student wing linked to Prime Minister Modi’s party. Human rights groups refer to his death as institutional murder. Human rights groups refer to his death as institutional murder.

A little to the east of the capital, in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh state, a Muslim man was murdered in September on the suspicion that he stored beef (the cow being deemed sacred by Hindu fanatics) and when one of his assailants died a natural death in hospital recently, his body was covered with the national flag, Modi’s party members egging on the supporters of the attackers.

Just a few days ago, eight Muslims were killed by police in the central Indian state, Madhya Pradesh which is ruled by Modi’s BJP: extra-judicial executions or “encounters” as they are known in India, are quite rife, the National Human Rights Commission having noted that there were 206 such instances over the past year. In Manipur, to the east of India, there have been more than 1,500 “encounters” since the 1970s.   

Attacks on Dalits (members of oppressed castes) are a daily occurrence. ‘Cow vigilantes’ or Hindu fanatic hoodlums who attack Muslims and Dalits transporting meat – and not only of the cow – have been becoming increasingly brazen in their ways in many parts of India, especially in BJP-ruled states but also in others such as Karnataka, currently ruled by the Congress party.

Vast areas of mineral-rich central and east-central India have been rendered no-go zones for independent lawyers and journalists with police-raj prevailing and local Bar Associations and the media subject to police control.

May is set to end her India visit on November 8. Just the day after, unless wiser counsels prevail, the Modi regime’s bizarre order on a television channel, NDTV, to go off air for a day is to take effect: the government’s grouse is apparently that the outfit put out sensitive information about an alleged Pakistani attack on a military base in Pathankot in Punjab earlier this year. Never mind that other channels too had reported on the attack. But NDTV had earlier blotted its copybook by caving in unasked just a couple of weeks earlier when it interviewed a former Congress party minister named P. Chidambaram and then decided not to air it. Meanwhile, the Kashmir Reader remains banned.

But there certainly is resistance against Modi Raj. In fact, it is occasionally “in your face” even from the usually supine middle class: just a few days ago, when it was reported that The Indian Express, a major newspaper house, had invited Modi to present journalism awards, there were predictable expressions of consternation, which, however gave place to pleasant acknowledgements of the courage of a couple of journalists who used the occasion to signal dissent – senior journalist Akshaya Mukul refused to accept his award from Modi and Raj Kamal Jha, the newspaper’s own editor made pointed references to the need for reporters to question governments. It was similar to scholar Sunkanna Velpula’s refusal to accept his doctorate from Hyderabad Central University Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile a few weeks ago in protest over the Rohith Vemula issue.

The media accompanying the British prime minister will not be able to question Modi as he does not face unscripted, freewheeling interviews or press conferences. His ministers and party leaders are also kept on a tight leash. The British reporters have their work cut out seeking other sources if they want to report on the reality of India under Modi.

(N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions).

(This article was first published on openDemocracyIndia.



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