Gujarat Butcher Modi (Not) in the US
Less than three years after the communal riots and pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) shocked members of the South Asian community by announcing it would feature Narendra Modi as the chief guest of its annual convention and trade show in late March. But on March 18, less than a week before he was set to appear at the convention and a day before a scheduled rally in New York City, Mr. Modi was denied entry to the U.S. by the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.
Background on the Gujarat pogrom
In February 2002, a deadly fire in a train car carrying Hindu pilgrims resulted in 59 passengers burning to death in Godhra, Gujarat. Reports indicated a Muslim mob stoned the train car and set fire to it. A day later, organized mobs went on a rampage in Ahmedabad and nearby villages, targeting Muslim residents and businesses. The violence continued for many days and sporadic violence was reported upto two months later. Most of the 2,000 killed were Muslim, and an estimated 100,000 people (the overwhelming majority of them Muslim) lost their homes. Mr. Modi was roundly blamed by Indian and international human rights organizations for not taking quick action to stop the massacre, raping, and sexual mutilation of Muslims during days of communal rioting. Furthermore, Mr. Modi was implicated in the orchestration of the pogroms; and after the violence abated, his administration was denounced for not seeking justice for the victims (although there were many arrests in connection with the train fire in Godhra).
Human rights organizations and activists were hardly alone in their outrage—referring to the legal proceedings to find and punish the perpetrators of the pogroms, in September 2002, the chief justice of India's Supreme Court stated publicly that he had "no faith left in the prosecution and the [BJP] Gujarat government." In a 2002 report on the Gujarat pogroms, India's National Human Rights Commission accused the Gujarat government of "a complicity that was tacit if not explicit." The report indicated "there is no doubt [...], that there was a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of rights of life, liberty, equality, and dignity of the people of the state." In 2002, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that India be listed as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department, and in 2004, it was added to the list. In January 2005, an Indian government investigation found that the fire started inside the train car and may have been accidental. The findings were disputed by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who claimed the findings were politically biased and were doctored to discredit the BJP (which has been defeated in national parliamentary election in 2004).
The embassy cited findings of India's National Human Rights Commission and provision of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act prohibiting entry to foreign officials who have been responsible for or have participated in severe forms of religious persecution. The other considerations that went into the U.S. decision are not clear and entry has been denied to others for arbitrary reasons. But in this case, concerted and sustained action by members of the Indian diaspora helped make the visa denial and revocation happen. This is an indication that social justice activists from the South Asian diaspora have achieved a level of sophistication and coordination that the Indian government and political parties cannot dismiss. Much of the work that went into the well-organized and sophisticated campaign to protest Mr. Modi's visit was done by the Coalition Against Genocide (CAG).
Setting the Stage for the Coalition Against Genocide
In the U.S. and Canada, the horrors of the 2002 Gujarat riots and their aftermath prompted numerous individuals and organizations from the South Asian diaspora to condemn the violence and to take action. Their efforts included peace and fact finding trips to Gujarat, speaking out against communal violence, lending support to human rights activists in India, as well as launching the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (see "Challenging the Foreign Exchange of Hate" in SAMAR Magazine, Issue 16). Compelled to fight the growing specter of communal violence in India, these individuals and local organizations used personal connections and harnessed the internet to form a lose network spanning the U.S. and Canada. But their work to seek justice for the victims and to prevent future violence was viewed through a sectarian lens by a significant portion of the Hindu diasporic community. While many members of the diaspora deplored the riots and were aghast at the breakdown in law and order in Gujarat in 2002, a significant portion viewed the reports of the pogroms and the state government's complicity in the violence as a "Muslim" issue rather than as an urgent social justice issue. And this portion of the diaspora was willing to let the 2002 riots be a footnote in India's history and not question Mr. Modi's role.
But another significant portion of the diaspora was not willing to let the 2002 pogroms be relegated to history. The targeted violence and its aftermath were against Indians, regardless of their religious background, and the state's lack of action and complicity was a blow to India as a country. News that AAHOA's leaders had decided to honor Mr. Modi at their annual convention caused widespread consternation within the community and activated the network of activists and concerned individuals that have been working with activists in India to seek justice for the victims of violence and intimidation in Gujarat. This network was diverse—it was composed of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others, recent immigrants and long-time residents, and people born in North America; its members included corporate and non-profit types, medical professionals, academics, students, and private citizens. Despite differences in politics and outlook, they were all horrified by the Gujarat pogroms and their aftermath.
The following further united them: an abiding concern for human rights in India, and outrage at AAHOA's leadership for turning a blind eye to Mr. Modi's role in the Gujarat pogroms and ignoring the horrors of one of the worst cases of state-sponsored violence in India. Furthermore, they were concerned that AAHOA's invitation was part of a strategy to rehabilitate Mr. Modi's image in the U.S. and whitewash his record. Besides the AAHOA convention, Mr. Modi was headlining a rally in New York City and was to inaugurate an India Studies Center at California State University in Long Beach (see related articles in Ghadar, here and here). The prospects of Mr. Modi being feted in the U.S. and gaining legitimacy by associating himself with prominent Americans without having to answer for his role in the pogroms galvanized the activists into forming the Coalition Against Genocide in February 2005. Over 35 organizations from the U.S. and Canada joined the coalition and another ten organizations became CAG supporting organizations.
CAG's multi-faceted strategy
CAG's first action was to contact AAHOA's leadership and lodge a protest regarding the invitation to Mr. Modi. In letters, faxes, and e-mails sent to AAHOA executives, CAG informed AAHOA leaders about Mr. Modi's human rights record and asked the organization to rescind the invitation (please visit http://www.coalitionagainstgenocide.org to view the letter). The letter indicated that if the invitation was not rescinded, CAG would have no option but to launch a public campaign to protest Mr. Modi's appearance. AAHOA executives refused to rescind Mr. Modi's invitation, insisting he had been invited to talk about business prospects in Gujarat (the overwhelming majority of AAHOA members hail from that state). CAG responded with a public protest campaign.
CAG members made a concerted outreach effort and mobilized their member organizations' constituency and asked them to sign an online petition and to take action in support of CAG's campaign. Concurrently, they enlisted the support of a wide spectrum of Indian organizations and circulated a letter to the State Department and to members of the U.S. Congress signed by over 125 faculty members in South Asian studies and other fields asking that Modi not be allowed to enter the U.S. CAG assembled a dossier about Mr. Modi and contacted members of Congress to inform them about the Gujarat riots and the reports condemning Mr. Modi's role. At the same time, the coalition contacted people and organizations that were associated with AAHOA's convention to inform them about Mr. Modi's record.
The campaign achieved some notable milestones and quickly gathered momentum. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, had been scheduled to speak at the convention, but withdrew on March 8 after being contacted by CAG and numerous CAG supporters (he claimed a scheduling conflict). CAG also launched a public campaign to ask American Express to withdraw its support for the AAHOA convention given that it was honoring a person accused of gross human rights violations. Importantly, human rights activists in India joined CAG's campaign, also writing to American Express' head office there. On March 15, Congressmen John Conyers introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives "condemning the conduct of Chief Minister Narendra Modi for his actions to incite religious persecution and urging the United States to condemn all violations of religious freedom in India." The same day, Amnesty International issued a press release indicating it had written to American Express urging it to consider the human rights implications of its relationship to this AAHAO convention, "and whether there are more constructive opportunities for the company's support that would contribute to curtailing violence against women and minorities in India."
CAG members were further encouraged by a March 16 press release by the USCIRF expressing "deep concern about the impending visit." The press release quoted USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal as stating "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. [...] The Commission communicated with the State Department about the matter some time ago. We urge the Department to act with appropriate Indian officials to forestall or prevent the planned visit." On March 18, the day before he was supposed to travel to the U.S., the American embassy in New Delhi refused to issue a diplomatic visa and revoked Mr. Modi's tourist and business visa.
Cheers, protests, and withdrawals
The decision elicited cheers from human rights organizations and activists around the world. However, the decision was not celebrated everywhere. In the U.S., AAHOA expressed its disappointment. And in internet chat rooms, BJP/RSS supporters vociferously condemned the U.S. State Department's decision and accused CAG of being under the hand of "Muslim fundamentalists" and "enemies of Hinduism." While several Indian columnists castigated Washington for its decision, many others applauded it. Several venerable newspapers issued editorials in support of the visa denial and revocation and renewed calls for justice for victims of the pogroms. As for Mr. Modi, he stated the visa denial and revocation constituted a "national insult to India and the constitution" and called for a public protest. In Surat, members of the Bajrang Dal surrounded a PepsiCo warehouse and set it on fire.
In the U.S., Dr. Akshay Desai, a member of the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and reported to be close to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, sent an urgent letter to Bush Advisor Karl Rove, claiming among other things that "The Indian American community in the USA is also predominantly Hindu and would feel humiliated." (Facing questions about his letter, Dr. Desai later stated that he was not speaking on behalf of Hindus and Indian Americans but was relaying the concerns of AAHOA members). In New Delhi, the Indian government summoned the U.S. ambassador and formally requested that the revocation be reconsidered. In response, CAG sent an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 19. The letter urged Prime Minister Singh not to contest the U.S. decision and stated that "Mr. Modi's criminal conduct in India 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 almost a full year ago." (This letter and another open letter from CAG members can be accessed in their entirety on CAG's website.)
The organizers of the New York City rally and AAHOA executives were undeterred in their effort to feature Mr. Modi. The rally went ahead as planned with Mr. Modi being beamed in via video-conference to several thousand spectators. Mr. Modi addressed the AAHOA convention via video-conference as well. At the eleventh hour, American Express withdrew its substantial support of the convention, as did several large corporations, including Comcast and Home Depot. It was reported that Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the mayor of Fort Lauderdale (the site of the AAHOA convention), were both invited and were expected to appear at the convention but did not come in protest of the Modi invitation.
The work ahead
The work done by CAG was not out of the blue. Members of the South Asian diaspora in North America have been participating in human rights activism for many years—some of it dating from the 1984 pogroms against the Sikh community. Their activism has been buoyed by tireless work done by activists in India, many of whom have suffered intimidation and persecution for their efforts. And the work done in the past by organizations such as the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate laid the groundwork for CAG's 2005 campaign. Furthermore, CAG's results were achieved thanks to a concerted effort on the part of other organizations working independently of CAG—entities such as the Center for Religious Freedom and others who were conducting concurrent campaigns to deny Mr. Modi entry to the U.S.
It must be noted that the Indian diaspora is not united in its support or condemnation of the Gujarat riots and Mr. Modi's role. But until Modi's visa was denied, the voice of the members of the Indian diaspora who had condemned communal violence, who had asked for justice for the victims of the Gujrat pogroms, and who had been working to counter religious hatred were not taken seriously by the Indian government. The visa denial and revocation sent a message that the repercussions for committing gross violations of human rights cross national boundaries.
Furthermore, CAG's campaign has brought to the Indian government's attention that members of the Indian diaspora are increasingly well organized and politically savvy about demanding accountability on human rights and justice from the Indian government. These members come from a wide spectrum of the diaspora (for example, groups such as the South Asian Progressive Action Collective (SAPAC) and World Tamil Organization draw from different generations and levels of assimilation). They know how to generate attention and support abroad and harness support from the government and international NGOs and their reach is certainly not limited to South Asian institutions. CAG's success confirms that the diaspora's influence is no longer limited to the business and financial sector—and that social justice work from the diaspora is a force to be reckoned.
Amnesty International Reports
Coalition Against Genocide
Dossier on Mr. Narendra Modi
Ra Ravishankar, "US Universities Cozu Up to the Sangh", Ghadar
House Resolution 156 condemning Mr. Modi's visit
Human Rights Watch Reports
Reports by the U.S. Commission on International Human Rights
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom