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