February 21, 2020
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Now We Wait For The Light

Modi invoked a militant god and Gujarat when he met 'friends' in London

Now We Wait For The Light
Sarah Lee/The Guardian, London
Now We Wait For The Light
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi arrived in Britain to a hero's welcome last week— among a section of Hindu Gujaratis. The great Indian divide over Modi arrived with him as accompanying baggage. The British police did duty keeping Gujarati Hindus and Gujarati Muslims apart, as Hindus turned up to cheer Modi and Muslims to protest. Inevitably, differences arose among the Hindus over the kind of reception they should give him, and among the Muslims, whether they should meet him at all to put their views across. This split followed him everywhere.

Modi came to win support for his new campaign for a "vibrant Gujarat". That meant, among other things, an invitation to overseas Gujaratis to invest, and deliver him from the infamy of having played the devil for a state that he is supposed to have nurtured. Modi set a very Hindu flavour to his calendar, beginning with a meeting held by 'Friends of Gujarat'—which included no Muslim friends—and concluding with a visit to a temple in Watford just north of London. Modi visited this temple, donated to the Hare Krishna movement by former Beatle George Harrison, on the night of Janmashthami.

People have been worshipping Krishna so far as the playful god, the one who played the flute and sang with the gopis, he said in his speech here. "But times have changed. The time has come to worship the Krishna who wielded the Sudarshan Chakra." Modi gave a new flavour to birth celebrations for Krishna. Bharat, he said, "is the land where you do not have prophets, you have God himself taking birth".

To make things perfectly clear, since it would take more than a great monsoon to cool down any misunderstanding over this one, Modi did not speak of 'The Prophet'. But the use of the word 'prophet' firmly, and in English in a speech otherwise in Hindi, was not quite neutral either. Maybe, when you have Modi's kind of majority you need neither minority vote nor a leader's tact. But given the context Modi is coming from, and came to, it was hard to see how such a remark could be other than divisive. The Hindu audience in the tent did itself a lot of good by not applauding it. In now familiar Modi style, the speech had more muscle than sense.

Modi did not speak long; his audience in the tent was far smaller than expected, a sure way of editing a politician's speech as it happens. There were many more Hindus outside the tent, wandering around, or queuing at food stalls. Modi's brand of Hinduism was being challenged by samosas, and given the length of the queues, the samosas weren't doing badly at all. There is the Hindu who will say his prayers, have his samosas and go home, and who's to say he is not a good Hindu. As Modi saw it, you need the Sudarshan Chakra now to preserve that way of life.

If Modi won standing ovations and rapturous applause, it was at the meeting held at the Wembley conference centre that kicked off his tour. The audience was carefully picked for the day by the Friends of Gujarat; Modi had won them over before he spoke. But it was one occasion Modi could have made a symbolic statement, if no more, of the inclusive principle. Modi can hardly be damned for what he did not say, but the Gujarat carnage still hangs heavy, and you could hear the silence on Muslims.

Modi defended his position only when asked, at a press conference. "On the very first day after my election, within three hours, I said I am the chief minister of 50 million Gujaratis. I never said anything about minority or majority or this religion or that religion. I said this will not only be a government of those who voted for me but of those who did not vote for me."

The Guardian placed Modi in the tradition of Hitler and Milosevic. He responded by saying he really didin't care.

Two London-based groups of Indian Muslims, the Indian Muslim Federation and the Council of Indian Muslims, religiously boycotted Modi through the tour."But that does not mean we have any difference with Hindu Gujaratis in Britain," says Shamsuddin Agha, president of the Indian Muslim Federation. "Many Hindus joined the demonstrations against Modi and as communities here we respect one another and get on with one another."

But as among Hindus, there were clear divisions among Muslims over Modi. Ibrahim Master, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, led a Muslim delegation in a telephone conference call with Modi. The delegation was from Blackburn, home to the largest Gujarati Muslim population in Britain. "I know there are some Muslims who will dislike our telephone conversation with Mr Modi," Master says. "However, whilst there is a time and place for demonstrations, I strongly believe there is a greater need for dialogue to take place."

The Muslim delegation seems to have put its views to Modi firmly. "Mr Modi shares our vision and aspirations of seeing India as an economic superpower and realises the serious implications of communal riots on both the economic and financial resources of India, and how India's global position is weakened by all this," Master said. "He also agreed that if communal riots continue, then it will undermine all the good efforts of promoting relations between the communities by people like us." Hindus and Muslims need to live together and "we need the cooperation and assistance of people like Mr Modi to achieve this, and to this end we found the conversation with Mr Modi very useful, as we received a very positive response from him in this respect".

There were divisions within other Muslim groups over meeting Modi. And less of the anti-Modi anger than expected. Given the Muslim rhetoric for this long, Modi's inner circle looked pleased that the heat of the Muslim reception to him added up to no more than a couple of hundred chaps within a roundabout in Wembley, and a smaller number outside a Gujarati newspaper office he visited. The really angry among the Muslims looked betrayed by laziness within the ranks. The opposition thrust against Modi came through The Guardian which placed him in the tradition of Hitler and Milosevic. Modi responded by saying he had not read what The Guardian wrote and that he didn't really care what it said; he seemed in fact to enjoy making a show of not caring.

In Britain, it was India once more. The great Indian divide played itself out all over again through four quick days around Modi in London. Finally, it was not even a question of a certain Muslim view of Modi, or even of more than one Muslim view of Modi. Or of the number of Hindus within the New Gokul tent and at the samosa queues outside on land where George Harrison once lived. It was a question of who wants what kind of India. In the Hindu circle that ringed Modi around London, you heard of Gujarat, of Hindus of course, even of Bharat. Odd thing, but the one word you did not hear much was India.

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