Print edition : April 08, 2005

The denial of a U.S. visa to Chief Minister Narendra Modi comes as the culmination of a campaign by a section of Indian Americans disturbed by the anti-Muslim pogrom that rocked Gujarat in 2002.


Narendra Modi addressing the annual function of the Asian American Hotel Association via video conferencing from his official residence in Gandhinagar.-

A FEW days before he was to board a flight for the United States, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had to change his travel plans. As in many recent cases, at the last minute the U.S. government decided to revoke his legally acquired visa because of political pressure. Within this past year, the Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan and the British musician Yusuf Islam (better known as Cat Stevens) both opened letters from the U.S. government that asked them to stay away. The government, while it champions freedom, has a long tradition of using its borders to make political points: politicians who do not bow down to the primacy of U.S. power are still denied entry. Since 9/11, Muslims with a hint of anti-U.S. ideology have been turned away.

Progressives generally campaign for open borders, for the widest allowance of people to travel as freely across national boundaries as possible. Immigrant rights groups join refugee groups to insist on as humane a border policy as is possible under these modern conditions of free capital and tied labour. When Ramadan and others faced a denial of their visas, progressive organisations came out in force to make clear their unhappiness with the government. Progressives do, however, take a principled stand to restrict the mobility of state terrorists, such as the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In general, progressives oppose the U.S. State Department's attempts to use its visa policy to block entry of what it deems to be undesirable people.

In the case of Narendra Modi, the script is different. Little that he has said or done challenges U.S. primacy, indeed his own political party remains quite eager for a U.S.-Indian entente of the cosiest kind. Before 2002, Narendra Modi had been feted by the Indian American community and by U.S. politicians - sections that are eager to have a piece of the business opportunities in Gujarat. When he heard of the revocation of the visa, Narendra Modi said: "I have held a visa from 1998. Whatever happened in Gujarat happened in early 2002. Why did they not cancel it all this time?" The George Bush administration did not cancel the visa then because it did not face the barrage organised by Indian Americans in 2005. The campaigns during February and March within the U.S. were inspired by the massive disavowal of Narendra Modi within India (by the Supreme Court, the many commissions and from mass organisations). Narendra Modi had to be held accountable for the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, and Indian American organisations wanted to use any and all means to make that point.

ON the administration's delayed move, Narendra Modi has a point. The government has known about the Gujarat carnage of 2002 since it occurred, and if it did not register its finer details, reports by organisations such as the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as by the government's own Commission on International Religious Freedom made the case plainly. In fact, the Commission noted in its May 2002 report that "Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat in India, has been accused of delaying the deployment of the Army to subdue communal riots that broke out in February 2002 and stopping police from cracking down on Hindu mobs that burned mosques, attacked and killed Muslims, and destroyed their homes and property. At the very least, the State Department should continue to report to [the U.S.] Congress on its progress in identifying responsible parties." The other two organisations too had drawn from the National Human Rights Commission of India, whose report guided the State Department's decision on revocation of the visa.

In June 2002, the U.S. Commission heard analyses from various experts on the carnage. They pointed out that not only had Narendra Modi not acted to save lives but that he may have actually goaded on the pogrom. That his government had not been automatically dismissed under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution irked Professor Sumit Ganguly to note that "clearly, even someone deaf, dumb and blind would be able to tell that there was a breakdown of law and order". The U.S. government did not, however, revoke Narendra Modi's tourist/business visa. In 2003, the Gujarat Chief Minister travelled to the United Kingdom, and in 2004, a group of U.S.-based non-resident Indians (NRIs) invited him to deliver a lecture. Narendra Modi did not come. The March visit would have been his first since the pogrom.

When the Asian American Hotel Owners' Association (AAHOA) invited Narendra Modi to be the chief guest at its annual function, the Chief Minister agreed. In addition, during his short visit to the U.S., he planned to be feted in New York City and to inaugurate an Indian Studies Chair at California State University, Long Beach. As Indian Americans began to own more and more motels and medium size hotels, they created the AAHOA to combat discrimination against them and to increase their prestige. The 7,000 motel owners who form the AAHOA hold over $40 billion of real estate between them. And yet, they feel mocked and disregarded.

In recent years, the AAHOA's leadership has sought high-profile political leaders to attend its functions. As its president Bakulesh "Buggsi" Patel noted, the AAHOA wanted to leverage "our strengths for political purposes". In February 2005, the AAHOA welcomed newly minted U.S. Congressman Bobby Jindal (Republican from the State of Louisiana) to preside over its seminar in Washington, D.C.

When pressed about its invitation to Narendra Modi, the AAHOA's vice-chairman M.P. Rama said: "We told Narendrabhai Modi to come and tell our members about Gujarat's potential." Since almost half of the AAHOA's members hail from Gujarat, Rama continued, the presence of Narendra Modi would be a "great business opportunity" and a tremendous cultural boost. It is not quite clear whether the AAHOA welcomed Narendra Modi for his role within the Bharatiya Janata Party (and in the 2002 Gujarat carnage) or if it simply wanted to have the Chief Minister of Gujarat, whosoever that might be.

Since 2002, protests have dogged Narendra Modi whenever he has spoken at a prominent event. Most spectacularly, activist Jairus Banaji interrupted him at a January 2003 Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) event in Mumbai and questioned the organisation for inviting a person "who had blood on his hands". At another CII meeting in February 2003, leading industrialists Rahul Bajaj and Jamshed Godrej challenged Narendra Modi on Gujarat's "law and order" situation. The "CEO of Gujarat", as he fashioned himself then, abruptly answered: "It has been one year since they have been defaming us. It should stop now." It did not. In November 2003, activists once more stopped Narendra Modi from speaking at a CII event. These protests had moved from the streets to the boardroom, and yet the AAHOA had decided to invite him.

THE organisers of the New York function in Madison Square Garden, unlike the AAHOA, took a much more aggressive attitude toward his now-cancelled trip. They called Narendra Modi the "Lion of Gujarat" and a "Visionary and Dynamic Young Leader of India". Calling itself the Association of Indian Americans for North America, the committee that organised Narendra Modi's visit to the city comprised the senior leadership of the U.S.-based Sangh Parivar. The founder of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (Mahesh Mehta) joined with the current Sanghchalak of the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh overseas), and they found ready assistance from various luminaries of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (such as Suresh Jain, Sudhakar Reddy and Mukund Mody). For them, Narendra Modi is not just the Chief Minister of Gujarat but also a hero for his aggressive Hindutva.

Narendra Modi is a divisive figure. He is a hero to the U.S. branch of Hindutva or Yankee Hindutva, just as he is reviled by those who are committed to a socially just world, both in India and elsewhere. Organisations that have worked in the U.S. for the past 15 years to monitor the activities of Yankee Hindutva and create a liberal Indian American community got into action. Forty such organisations formed the Coalition Against Genocide (CAG) that oversaw the many protests against Narendra Modi's trip. The coalition included secular organisations (such as the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia and NRIs for Secular and Harmonious India), Indian Muslim organisations (such as the Indian Muslim Council - USA and the Association of Indian Muslims of America), Hindu organisations (such as the Dharma Megha and Vedanta Society of East Lansing), Sikh organisations (such as Sikh American Heritage Organisation), Christian organisations (such as the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations of North America), women's organisations (such as Manavi) and Left organisations (such as the Forum of Inquilabi Leftists and the Indian Progressive Study Group).

The CAG emerged in late February to demand that the AAHOA rescind its invitation to Narendra Modi. In its letter of formation, the CAG noted that it would "adopt a multi-pronged strategy to expose and marginalise the extremists and will work towards safeguarding the pluralist ethos of India and the economic well-being of the Indian Diaspora in [the] U.S.". Narendra Modi was to share the AAHOA podium with a television talk-show host, Chris Mathews. So the CAG began a grass-roots telephone and e-mail campaign to get him to withdraw. By March 9, Mathews left but without an acknowledgement of the pressure upon him. His spokesperson said that he could not attend the AAHOA meet because of "scheduling conflicts", when it was plain that the CAG-led pressure had got to him. The CAG also began a campaign against American Express, the main sponsor of the AAHOA event. The corporate giant, however, did not budge.

The CAG's position had been clear from early March. Narendra Modi's visit allowed activists to renew their demand that "the Indian government take immediate steps to punish the perpetrators of the pogrom and to rehabilitate the victims". The main goal was justice for the victims of the Gujarat 2002 pogrom, and not simply the denial of a visa to Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, the CAG and its allies petitioned the State Department to withdraw its visa because of the Chief Minister's role in the pogrom. South Asian American women's organisations and a coalition of faculty members who teach South Asia Studies joined the fray, along with Washington D.C. groups such as the Institute for Religion and Public Policy and the progressive Jewish national organisation Tikkun.

On March 17, the Commission on International Religious Freedom came out against Narendra Modi's visit. Its chairperson Preeta D. Bansal noted: "At a time when the newly elected Indian government and courts have initiated a number of actions to address the tragic Gujarat massacres in which Gujarat State officials were found by India's own investigative body to be complicit, the Commission has been concerned that Modi's private visit will only serve inappropriately to give a platform in the United States to someone who has been implicated in grave violations of religious freedom."

That same day, liberal African American Congressman John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan) submitted Bill No. HR156 to condemn "the conduct of Chief Minister Narendra Modi for condoning or inciting bigotry and intolerance against any religious group in India, including people of Christian and Islamic faiths". Conyers' Bill put the case in the strongest possible language, arguing that Modi's government promoted "attitudes of racial supremacy, racial hatred and the legacy of Nazism through his government's support of school textbooks in which Nazism is glorified". The Bill, along with the indictment from the U.S. Commission sealed the case. The State Department had to revoke the visa.

WITHIN the Indian American community, news of the revocation increased political divisions. A long-time community organiser and founder of numerous Indian American groups (most notably chair of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin), Thomas Abraham, is happy that Narendra Modi will not get a platform but he is worried about the fallout in the U.S. "As a new immigrant group in America," he said, "we want to avoid division of the Indian community on the political lines of India." That the U.S. government revoked the visa of an Indian elected official allowed some segments of the NRI community to evoke nationalism. They felt that the government had impugned the integrity of India. Indeed, this is the same position taken by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as well as by other Opposition parties.

The CAG offered an alternative interpretation of how Narendra Modi lost his visa. In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it argued that "Modi" does not represent India, indeed his actions and his ideology are contrary to the Indian values that CAG upholds. "Mr. Modi's criminal conduct in India," the CAG wrote, "ought to have been the real basis for censure and legal redress. It is unfortunate that the issue had to come down to the U.S. revoking his visa, when the UPA government itself should have acted against Mr. Modi's criminal misrule after it came to power on behalf of the Indian people a full year ago." Furthermore, the U.S. government did not decide to take away Narendra Modi's visa. That honour must go to activists both in India and in the U.S. who worked in concert.

CAG members and member organisations are uncomfortable with their own strategic use of the U.S. government to deny Modi his visa. After all, many of the CAG's constituent organisations also participated in anti-war protests on March 20, the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Angana Chatterji of the CAG noted: "The U.S. government is headed by a man who himself should be charged with crimes against humanity, and what Washington defines as `human rights' is itself a hugely problematic terrain. We need to hold Washington accountable to an ethical agenda of human rights, even as the present U.S. administration continues to violate the rights of citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere." In other words, the CAG hoisted Washington on the petard of its own propaganda.

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