India: Modi visits Britain

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In mid-November Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a three-day visit to the UK, meeting heads of UK corporations to urge them to invest more in India, holding talks with David Cameron and making a speech to 60,000 supporters in Wembley stadium. This was the 29th country Modi had visited in the eighteen months since he was elected prime minister following a landslide victory for his party BJP, thanks to an astute and well-funded media campaign and disillusionment over rising inflation and slow growth under the previous Congress government. Modi had been banned from visiting the UK and US and other countries in the wake of his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat state, where he had been chief minister when over 1,200 Muslims were killed. Thousands of Indian demonstrators protested against the visit outside Downing Street and other venues, and the slogan ‘Modi not welcome’ was projected on the Houses of Parliament.

The recent UK visit comes in the midst of increased communal polarisation and attacks against mainly Muslims and Dalits (the lowest and poorest stratum in Hindu society) in India. A number of secular intellectuals and freethinkers such as MM Kalburgi have been murdered and others have received death threats from fundamentalist Hindutva gangs, emboldened by the right-wing BJP government’s Hindu nationalist policies and Modi’s studied silence in the face of these events. A number of writers, film directors and other intellectuals have returned their awards to the government in protest against the rising intolerance. In BJP-ruled Haryana, attacks on Dalits have increased seven-fold. In October, two Dalit children were burnt alive in Faridabad by upper-caste Hindus. Mob attacks on Muslim men seen in the company of Hindu women under the false accusation of love jihad are now common in Mangalore and other coastal cities of Karnataka state where Hindutva forces dominate.

Although Modi was elected on a promise of development, there has been little or no tangible change in the lives of millions of poor people. In fact, inequality has widened since the government came to power, along with a weak Rupee, worse inflation and increased unemployment. Hence, there are attempts to communally polarise the mainly Hindu electorate to divert attention from the government’s failures to deliver on the economic front. In the recent elections in Bihar and other states, a number of communally polarising statements were made by Modi and other BJP ministers such as Amit Shah. In Kashmir state and states in the north east, the Armed Forces Special Forces laws that allow the army unrestricted powers have not been withdrawn in spite of a sustained campaign. However, recent BJP electoral defeats in Bihar and Delhi prove that a communalised poll campaign does not always work.

There have also been a number of recent attempts by Hindutva nationalists of the RSS and BJP led Sangh Parivar to dominate the cultural landscape and destroy the secular fabric of India. Last year, Penguin announced withdrawal of a book on Hindus by Wendy Doniger that Hindu nationalists such as Dinanath Batra had opposed. A number of history and other school textbooks have been rewritten to better conform to the Hindutva agenda. The BJP government has been putting Hindu nationalists in charge of institutions such as the Indian Council of Historical Research and the esteemed film institute FTII where a 139-day student strike against the appointment of an RSS nominee ended without any major changes. Legal attacks including funding bans and other restrictions have been imposed on international charities and NGOs. These include Greenpeace which has exposed environmental destruction across the country. Beef has been banned in a number of Indian states such as BJP-ruled Maharashtra since the nationalists consider the cow as sacred to Hindus. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, cow urine has been declared as a disinfectant substitute for phenyl in government hospitals. Censorship of the media and social media has also increased. A number of Muslims on death row such as Kasab and Afzal Guru have been recently hanged, despite the fact that since Independence, very few death row criminals have been actually executed.

Modi government foreign policy has become closer to the US, participating in the US-led military build-up with Japan and Australia against China, not voting against Israel in the UN Human Rights Council contrary to the decades-old Indian policy of supporting Palestine in UN and other international bodies. India-Israel defence ties have deepened, culminating in a soon-to-be-held visit by Israeli leader Netanyahu to India. Anti-Pakistan rhetoric by the BJP government has risen sharply. However, the government has also tried to maintain a somewhat independent course to protect its own interests, continuing ties with Russia and seeking trade avenues with Iran.

Attacks on trade unions and dismantling of labour laws are another expression of government policy. The BJP government was elected last year thanks to financial, propaganda and other support by big industrialists and international financial agencies like Moody’s who hoped they would fast-track labour reforms to cut environmental and trade union restrictions on the all-out plundering of India’s natural resources and labour market. A number of labour laws have been changed, inspector visits to factory premises cut and safeguards for employees removed for smaller companies and factories, under the pretext of eliminating red tape and stimulating the economy. The government also tried to bring a land acquisition bill making it easier to forcibly acquire land from farmers and others for purposes of industrialisation and national interests, but it was fell because the BJP is in a minority in the upper house of parliament. There was a nationwide strike by the main trade unions on 2 September against the changes in labour laws and against increased privatisation and disinvestment of government-run companies as well as anti-worker measures such as decreased promotion and bonus benefits, frozen salaries in spite of high inflation and restrictions on trade union activities.

The only real way to combat the climate of intolerance and attacks on the historically secular nature of India is for workers and the common people to come together and fight for their rights while simultaneously rejecting any attempts to divide them in the name of caste and religion.