‘London and Us’ by Subir Sinha
Shashi Tharoor’s recent op-ed for The Guardian, where he charged PM Modi with damaging India’s reputation worldwide by waging a ‘war on Muslims’ and on tolerance, was slammed by Modi’s fans, accusing him of tarnishing India’s image, and of a PM who works tirelessly to lift India to a position of prosperity and world leadership. To them it amounted to washing the national dirty laundry in the land of the ex-colonizers, raising the question of appropriateness of criticising and protesting against Modi in the UK.
Modi’s London trip indicated how the India media, and Modi’s fans, frame that question. Indian journalists, interested primarily in the pageantry arranged for his official and community functions, and the ‘excitement level’ generated by the visit, not in any critique. One reporter, to whom I suggested that he should also cover the planned anti-Modi protests, said, “sir, I have come to see my PM speak in Parliament, and to attend the rock star event at Wembley, not to waste my time with critics and protests.”
However, Modi travels both as the democratically elected PM of India, and as a hero of the Hindu right. These two personae compete with each other, mobilizing bitterly-opposed coalitions. Modi’s admirers want no light shone on the dark patches of his past, invoking ‘clean chits’. They project him as a wise, unifying figure, representing India as a whole, and blur the lines between Modi’s two personae. Keith Vaz, the Labour MP, led a group India-origin MPs in donating their salary increases for Modi’s non-official Wembley event, sponsored by prominent Hindu organisations, in which Cameron repeated Modi’s ‘achche din’ slogan. Innocuous-sounding Facebook groups of Indian women planned to weave a ‘crochet for Modi’ but banned any criticism.
Modi’s critics pinned him as a leader of the Hindu right, denying his claims to represent the nation. Having suffered low morale and fearing their protest would be overwhelmed by Modi supporters, by November 8 they sensed a change in the mood in London, as news came of Dadri and the spate of beef-related lynchings, the killings of dalits, and Kalburgi’s murder. Modi’s silence on these killings added to a sense of disquiet. Comments by award returners and other eminent Indians highlighted the problem of intolerance. Also filtering in was Modi’s use of language in the Bihar elections widely considered unfit for use by a PM.
Modi’s London critics seized upon these incidents to argue that he was a polarizing not uniting figure, no different from so-called ‘fringe’ of the Hindu right. Protest organisers saw increased interest from the British media and found a voice on Twitter and Facebook, so far dominated by the pro-Modi camp. Petitions and letters to editors gained signatories.
Protesters at Downing Street raised concerns of civil liberties, freedom of speech, tolerance and rights of dalits and religious and national minorities, and found unexpected allies in Nepalis incensed by the Modi government’s undeclared blockade of their country. On social media, Modi supporters accused protesters of shaming India, and harming its economic prospects and dreams of a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Even some prominent liberals expressed distaste for the protests.
The campaign against Modi’s NRI critics revealed alliances between the Hindu right and British politicians. Bob Blackman, the Conservative British MP to whom Indian right-wingers sent requests to investigate Modi’s critics, is close to Sangh affiliates in the UK, who post his photos at their functions on their webpage. VHP UK described him as a supporter. Labour MP Mike Gapes is another British politician who counts on VHP support and appeared in their pro-Modi programmes.
Modi’s supporters and the Indian media see criticising the government of the day on foreign soil as treachery worthy of punishment, and expect NRIs to be cheerleaders and brand ambassadors for India. However, to his credit, Modi recognized London as a platform for Indian politics going back to the days of the anti-colonial movement, by garlanding Gandhi’s statue, and going to Ambedkar’s house recently purchased by the government of Maharashtra. Though he did not visit it, Savarkar’s house hosted discussions on removing colonial rule through violent means; attendees reportedly included Lenin.
London is a global city of finance and the place where threads of international politics intersect. For some politics, such as the campaign against Vedanta, it is a primary site. If it is legitimate as a platform to boost Modi’s domestic image and to shape his political campaigns in India, it is as legitimate to oppose Modi and his policies on this platform. If it is ok for Cameron to repeat Modi’s electoral slogan of ‘Achche din zaroor ayenge’ from the Wembley stage, then it is equally legitimate to challenge that narrative on the streets of London. Claims of treachery of the critical NRI do not make sense, not only because the Hindu right uses this platform to the full, and has allies among the right and far-right in the UK, but also because Indian politics, not for more than a century, has not been limited by the borders of India. London is an ‘Indian’ city not only for Bollywood, Bhangra and bhajees, but also for radical dissent.
Subir Sinha teaches in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, London. He tweets @PoMoGandhi.