Narendra Modi’s US visit elicits mixed reactions from Indian-Americans

The new Indian leader is as controversial as he is popular, and many still remember his inaction during 2002 riots.

Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Sept. 18, 2014. His upcoming visit to New York has exposed a political divide in the Indian-American community. (Harish Tyagi / EPA)
Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Sept. 18, 2014. His upcoming visit to New York has exposed a political divide in the Indian-American community. (Harish Tyagi / EPA)

If Indians living in the United States had been allowed to vote in this year’s Indian elections, says Bharat Barai, “Narendra Modi probably would’ve gotten an 85-to-90-percent vote — far better than he got in India.”

Barai is the chief organizer of a reception for the new prime minister, to be held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Sept. 28; the free tickets were snapped up in a matter of weeks. This will be Modi’s first visit to the United States since the U.S. Congress denied him a visa in 2005 for failing to protect religious freedom during riots in 2002 in the western Indian state of Gujarat, during which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed. The visa decision was reversed earlier this year after Modi’s political party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, swept the Indian elections in May.

Now Modi’s upcoming visit is exposing a political divide in the Indian-American community. While the Indian American Community Foundation, the organizer of the Madison Square Garden reception, is pulling out all the stops for the event — which will have upward of 20,000 attendees and live telecasts in Times Square and online — a coalition of progressive South Asian and civil-rights groups is planning a protest outside the venue. For most Indians in the United States, Modi’s ascent signifies a more powerful role for India on the world stage, especially economically. But a determined minority is keeping the memory of the riots alive and raising questions about what a divisive government means for India’s secular identity.

 One of the dissenters is 22-year-old Nayi Sultana (who requested that her real name not be used for this story), whose family sought political asylum in the United States in 1997. They were fleeing anti-Muslim violence — specifically, riots in Mumbai in 1992 in which more than 1,000 people were killed over two months, most of them Muslim. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report found that a Hindu nationalist group was responsible for instigating the violence.

Sultana’s family settled in a working-class neighborhood in Richmond, California, didn’t mix much with other Indian immigrants and avoided the subject of why they left. But now that the Indian-American community is gearing up for the arrival of Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist, Sultana is finally getting involved.

Modi’s government doesn’t care about us, she says. “Which is a theme about India — the leadership doesn’t care about the minorities.”

Targeting minorities

Indian state police watch a Muslim-owned shop burn March 1, 2002, in Ahmadabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat. (Ami Vitale / Getty Images)

The controversy surrounding Modi’s handling of the Gujarat riots and his ties to the right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have made for increased suspicion of Hindu nationalism in India. After the BJP came to power this year, a group of U.S. citizens — some of whom had already been demanding justice and accountability for the Gujarat riots — came together to form the Ghadar Alliance, an anti-Hindutva group. (“Hindutva” literally translates to “Hindu-ness” but in practice means “Hindu rule.”) The organization recently released a report on Modi’s first 100 days in government, citing freedom of the press, religious extremism, the environment and the economy as areas of serious concern.

“What we’re protesting is not just Modi,” says Robindra Deb of the Alliance for Justice and Accountability, the New York chapter of the Ghadar Alliance, which was named after the Urdu word for “revolt.” “In a lot of ways, he’s the face of this. But it’s not just about him. It’s about this whole movement that backs him.”

The new Indian prime minister may symbolize the most hard-line version of Hindu nationalism, but the right-wing ideology is hardly new.

At the 2014 Festival of India and Parade in Fremont, California, held every year in August to commemorate Indian independence, dozens of Sikh protesters wore matching yellow shirts, highlighting anti-Sikh riots that took place in India in 1984. They held up signs that read “India kills minorities” and “If you really love India, why don’t you live in India?”

Parminder Singh, who was leading the protest, said their anger was due to the lack of attention from the Indian government regarding the massacres. “They [Sikhs] were brutally murdered. They were burned alive. The women were raped. Property was looted,” he said. “To this day, nobody’s been convicted.”

Jagdish Tytler, a former minister from the rival Congress party, which was in power at the time, has been widely implicated in the riots, and the Indian government reopened an investigation last year, but he has yet to be held accountable.

The government’s failure to bring justice to the Sikhs after all these years shows how the Hindus always try to suppress all minorities, Singh said.

“At this point, these communities are realizing that they have the same experiences of being targeted,” says Simran Jeet Singh, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who is studying the formation of religious groups in South Asia and who is a Senior Religion Fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a community organization formed in the aftermath of 9/11. “What we see in India is sort of the opposite effect. There is this overarching narrative of India being secular, pluralistic. Because of that narrative, religious violence and nationalism isn’t really taken seriously.”

Vision of India?

Rajan Sadagopan, a member of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, with a pro-Modi sign during this year’s Festival of India and Parade in Fremont, California, in August. (Sonia Paul)

In India, Modi’s human-rights record and Hindu-nationalist leanings have all but faded into the background. They’ve been overshadowed by his early efforts to boost India’s stagnant economy, generate jobs and root out corruption. His supporters hail the development he brought to Gujarat, where he was chief minister for three consecutive terms, as an example of what he can do for the country. Gujarat is now one of the richest states in India, although reports show the growth has not been equitable.

Among Indians in the United States, too, his economic policies are winning him supporters. “He wants to bring India to the level of other Western countries,” says Barai. And second-generation Indians, usually perceived as less interested in Indian politics, have taken a huge leadership role in planning Modi’s reception and were just as excited for his win, Barai adds. “If you ask me what is the surprise, that is the surprise.”

Rajan Sadagopan, an immigrant from the southern Indian city of Chennai and member of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, was also at the Fremont India Day parade. He spent his time there holding a life-size poster of the new prime minister in one hand and a sign that read “Modi: Vision of India” in the other.

“Hundreds of people came and took photos [with the poster],” Sadagopan says, laughing, though he admits not everyone knew a lot about Modi or paid much attention to politics in India. “He’s seen as the only hope for India.”

A capitalist ideal

The economic promise of a Modi-led government is partly what helped soften his right-wing leanings and made him easier to accept for Indians in India as well as in the diaspora, says Vijay Prashad, author of “The Karma of Brown Folk” and “Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today.”

“In diaspora communities, there has always been a sense that if your country is strong, you in the diaspora are taken seriously,” he says. People think that “Modi is a strong man … There is a macho thing that is there.”

Anisha Gade, a master’s candidate in urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley who is studying cultural, racial and ethnic diversity in Silicon Valley, says she wouldn’t be surprised if most Indians here are pleased that he is the prime minister. “I would say that just because of the socioeconomic status of most Indians in this country, especially in this part of the country,” she says. “Most Indians are quite well-to-do. [Modi] is very interested in a kind of cosmopolitan pursuit of one’s individual liberty or one’s freedom in that way. And so in that sense, I would say most people are on board with that message. Because it’s worked for them.”

Anu Mandavilli, a first-generation immigrant who has been living in the United States for almost 15 years and is a co-founder of the Ghadar Alliance, agrees. “I would say the way we understand the Hindutva operation today, in 2014, would definitely be that it’s not just a cultural or political ideology,” she says. “There’s a particular sort of marriage of Hindutva as a political ideology with neoliberalism the economic ideology.”

But if a capitalist economy is the ideal, Sultana cautions, there are certain pitfalls. “When we talk about India, we don’t talk about the structural problems of caste and religious minorities. We think about poverty and economic development,” she says. “If you are thinking the way Modi is promoting India is following this capitalist, American model, the same things that are happening here, in Ferguson [Missouri], they’re going to be happening in India in no time … Oh, wait, they already have, because there are communal riots.”

Likening India’s Hindu majority to America’s white majority puts things in perspective.

“So it immediately runs in their ideology that Hindu culture is culture in India,” says Prashad. “Muslims can live in India … You can be Christian in India. But your culture is Hindu.”

“Can you imagine saying that in America?” he asks. “‘Your culture has to be white’?”

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the position of Simran Jeet Singh at the Sikh Coalition. He is Senior Religion Fellow there. 

This article was originally published September 25, 2014, on Al Jazeera America.

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