Narendra Modi and the Indian Muslims
Divisive figure could become India's next PM

Narendra Modi was chief minister in the Indian state of Gujarat when anti-Muslim pogroms took place there 12 years ago. Today, he is the Hindu nationalist BJP party's candidate for the post of prime minister. Will this exacerbate India's inter-religious tensions? By Ulrich von Schwerin

On 27 February 2002, a dispute broke out between Hindu pilgrims and Muslim residents at the Godhra railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat. In the course of this dispute, fire broke out on a train, killing 59 Hindus. 

Although there were indications that the fight erupted spontaneously, Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Muslims involved as "terrorists" and glorified the dead Hindu pilgrims as martyrs. According to later reports, he gave orders at a cabinet meeting that evening for no action to be taken in the event of counter-attacks against Muslims.

In the days and weeks that followed, targeted attacks by Hindu nationalist groups on the Muslim minority took over 2,000 lives – according to human rights groups, the vast majority of them Muslim. Later investigations showed that the pogroms had been planned well in advance and that the Godhra tragedy had simply provided a pretext for putting the plans into action. It was also revealed that the violence had been fanned and directed by politicians from Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janati Party (BJP).

A burning train in Godhra railway station in February 2002 (photo: AP)
The Godhra trauma: after 59 Hindus lost their lives when a fire broke out in a train in Godhra railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat on 27 February 2002, the Muslim minority in the state became the target of pogroms

Threat of further confrontation

Today, 12 years later, Modi is the BJP's candidate for the post of prime minister in India's general election. The BJP has a good chance of emerging from the May elections as the strongest party. Modi would then become prime minister of India. 

Would this mean a further worsening of the already tense relations between Hindus and Muslims? And possibly renewed violence? Many Muslims and independent observers are alarmed. But Christian Wagner, India expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin counsels restraint.

"The BJP's decision to back Modi is very clearly motivated by his economic achievements," says Wagner. Modi was chosen as front-runner because he is regarded as an honest and efficient administrator, having steered his state to greater prosperity with his liberal economic course. 

Wagner believes that in order to win votes outside the traditional BJP electorate, Modi will emphasise in his campaign the need to fight corruption, promote the economy and ensure good governance.

"This is a significant difference from the BJP campaigns of the 1980s and 90s, when the focus was on the Hindu-nationalist element," notes Wagner. Although this strategy contributed back then to the rise of the BJP, the party has in the meantime realised that it is not conducive to obtaining more than 30 per cent of the vote at national level. In Wagner's opinion, the BJP's original plan to mobilise the Hindu masses through the Hindutva ideology – and thus achieve a majority – has failed.

Narendra Modi (photo: AP)
According to opinion polls, Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Hindu nationalist BJP, has every chance of becoming India's next prime minister after the general election in May

The ideology of Hindutva is an exclusivist form of cultural nationalism that has its origins in the 1920s. According to this ideology, India is the land of the Hindus, and there is no place there for minorities such as Muslims or Christians. However, the BJP and the other organisations of the Hindutva movement define Hinduism more in terms of culture than religion. The problem with this is that the Hindus, divided as they are into various castes and cults, do not constitute a unified culture. 

In order to sharpen the Hindu sense of identity and cohesion, the Hindu nationalists therefore rely on discrimination against Muslims and other minorities. Particularly the volunteer paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was founded in the 1920s and modelled on fascist organisations, repeatedly resorts to violence to assert this agenda. The RSS, where Modi long ago launched his career, also played a central role in the Gujarat pogroms.

To this day, the RSS and the BJP are still closely linked ideologically. They also have many members in common. "The RSS is important for the BJP as it represents the party's election machinery in many parts of the country. BJP candidates often do not have their own organisation and are dependent on co-operation with the local RSS cadres," says Wagner. 

But the relationship is not always easy. "It's a problem for the BJP that it is unable to shake off this shadow and is incapable of distancing itself ideologically, and in particular organisationally, from the RSS," Wagner notes.

The dilemma facing the Hindu nationalists

The party thus faces a dilemma. "The BJP needs the Hindutva ideology to mobilise its own electorate, but it is also clear that – once they are in office – they won't be able to deliver," says Wagner. Ultimately, the BJP will have to rely on other parties to form a government, and they have made it quite clear that they will not support an aggressive Hindutva policy. According to Wagner, the BJP was able to allow itself to cater to such a policy in Gujarat, but not at national level, where it has to take the diversity of the country into account.

Muslims queuing to cast their votes during an election in the Indian state of Gujarat (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Muslims under fire: critics accuse Narendra Modi of bearing some of the responsibility for the bloody attacks against Muslims in which up to 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat in the spring of 2002. Although Modi was never charged, some believe that he consciously allowed the anti-Muslim riots to happen

Nevertheless, Wagner would not rule out Modi's reliance on Hindutva wherever it seems tactically opportune to him to do so. There are already examples of this: when, in late October, on the same day Modi gave a speech in Patna, alleged Islamist terrorists killed ten people in a bombing, Modi had the ashes of the victims carried demonstratively through the city. And when in September a local dispute between Hindus and Muslims in Uttar Pradesh led to bloody riots that cost more than 40 lives, BJP politicians used rallies to further whip up emotions that were already running high.

Modi's rise is problematic for the West. Although no charges were ever brought against him, many human rights activists believe that he was complicit in the pogroms in Gujarat. After all, not only was he responsible for the police as chief minister, there was also evidence that the violence was fuelled by politicians of the BJP and organised by cadres of the RSS. For this reason, many European states shunned Modi after 2002. The US Administration even refused him entry into the country in 2005, bowing to pressure from Congress. 

In view of Modi's economic achievements, however, the memory of the pogroms faded over time – helped along by his own efforts. No word of the violence is mentioned in his official CV, although at the time he was forced to resign because of it, after which new elections were held. 

In recent months, the West has gradually come around. Following the example of several European ambassadors, the US Ambassador met Modi for the first time in mid-February. Modi is still denied a US visa, but should he become prime minister, that is bound to change.

Ulrich von Schwerin
© 2014
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/ 

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Comments for this article: Divisive figure could become India's next PM

Attack could have been pre-planned
TNN | Feb 28, 2002, 01.54 AM IST
ahmedabad/ godhra: was the attack on sabarmati express pre-planned? the answer is in the affirmative if intelligence collected by the state police is to be believed. but, once again, wednesday's incident has reflected a complete failure on the part of the police and the administration in anticipating trouble of such a huge magnitude. police sources said the mob was nearly 2000-strong and there were deliberate attempts at spreading rumours in the locality that 'kar sevaks' had burnt a mosque in dahod, about an hour away on the vadodara-ratlam section of western railway. "such a huge mob could not have collected unless there was a deliberate attempt to incite violence,"
Narendra Modi did not stand by and allow the Gujarat riots to happen
1.The Congress Union Minister of State for Home, Shriprakash Jaiswal, in Parliament on 11 May 2005, said 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots. This is hardly consistent with a Muslim genocide.

2.The entire police force of 70,000 was deployed in Gujarat on 27 February itself in apprehension of riots. (The Hindustan Times Feb 28, 2002). Gujarat police fired more than 4,000 rounds in the first three days alone. Altogether the police arrested more than 27,000 people. National Minorities Commission Chairman John Joseph noted, “As on April 6, 126 persons were killed in police firing, of which 77 were Hindus.” (The Telegraph, April 21, 2002.). This does not tally with the accusation of a deliberately inactive police force.

3.“Shoot-at-sight” orders had been given in Godhra on February 27 itself. (Times Of India, Feb 27, 2002). 827 preventive arrests were made on the evening of February 27 itself, on Chief Minister Narendra Modi”s order. The State Government deployed the Rapid Action Force in Ahmedabad and other sensitive areas and the Centre sent in CRPF personnel, on February 27 itself even before a single riot had taken place. (The Indian Express, Feb 28, 2002)

4.Narendra Modi, frantically called the Army units to Ahmedabad on February 28th (The Hindu, March 1, 2002). Army units started arriving in Ahmedabad on the night of February 28th. On 1st and 2nd March 2002, riots took place even in places where the Indian Army was present, i.e. Ahmedabad and Vadodara, and close to 100 people each were killed, despite the presence of the Indian Army.

5.Only 2 deaths were reported on 3rd March in the entire state, and the main violence ended on 3rd March 2002. After 3rd March 2002, riots took place almost entirely in those places where the Army was posted. Subsequently there were 157 riots and all of them were started by Muslim groups (India Today, June 24, 2002).

6.As early as 5 March 2002, out of the 98 relief / refugee camps set up in the state, 85 were for the Muslims and 13 were for the Hindus. As on 17 March 2002, as per The Times of India, 10,000 Hindus were rendered homeless in Ahmedabad alone. As on 25 April 2002, out of the 1 lakh 40 thousand refugees, some 1 lakh were Muslims and 40 thousand were Hindus. Again this is not consistent with the unilateral Muslim sufferings that have been portrayed.

7.India Today weekly in its issue dated 20 May 2002 clearly admits that, far from being anti-Muslim, the Gujarat police did not act speedily against Muslim fanatics and rioters, for fear of being called anti-Muslim by the biased and partisan media As for the issue of deployment of army, this is what India Today reported on its 18 March 2002 issue .

FEB 27, 2002
8.03 AM: Incident at Godhra claims lives of 57 kar sevaks.
8.30 AM: Modi is informed of the carnage.
4.30 PM: Modi gives shoot-at-sight orders to the police.
10.30 PM: CM orders curfew in sensitive places and pre-emptive arrests.

FEB 28, 2002
8.00 AM: Special control room set up in CM”s house.
12.00 PM: Modi informally contacts Centre for calling in army.
4.00 PM: Modi requests army deployment following consultations with Advani.
7.00 PM: The Gujarat Government”s formal request for army deployment is received in Delhi.
11.30 PM: Airlifting of troops begins

MARCH 1, 2002

2.30 AM: A brigade reaches Ahmedabad.
9.00 AM: Discussions between representatives of the army and the state take place, followed by troop flag march in Ahmedabad.”

That the retaliation of the Godhra train carnage was overwhelming for the available resources at his disposal was obvious, but to blame the Chief Minister or his administration for that would be as unjustified as to blame the Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh, for the recent obvious sloppiness and intelligence failure that one saw during the recent Mumbai terrorist attack of Nov 2008. Yet that has been and is still being done in such vigor that even most Hindus feel that it is the truth and are probably shameful about Mr. Narendra Modi.

Contrast this with the largest riot that happened in recent times, the anti Sikh riot in Delhi in 1984, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi”s assassination. In that incidence, officially 3,000 Sikhs were killed and may be 10,000 in actual number. Not a single Congressman was killed, not even one person was killed in police firing, and not even a single government relief camp was organized for the Sikhs in 1984. "Not a single Congressman was killed, not even one person was killed in police firing, and not even a single government relief camp was organized for the Sikhs in 1984."

Let me also remind you, though you may not know, that Narendra Modi had actually requested police back up from Madhya Pradesh at the time of the riots when Digvijay Singh was CM of MP, but Digvijay Singh declined to send any police to help stop Gujarat riots.

rajnish mishra08.03.2014 | 16:53 Uhr

Amusing, partisan and contrived. You are speaking of a person who could potentially be a leader of one sixth of all humanity within a month. How tactless!

Ranjiv Kurup21.04.2014 | 05:40 Uhr