Indian Prime Minister elect Narendra Modi’s is a remarkable story of a boy who grew from a low-caste tea vendor to acquire the highest office in the world’s largest democracy.
His growth, however, was not merely somatic. During his political career, the 63-year-old veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician has evolved from a young worker in a Hindu fundamentalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to a charismatic leader of an international stature.
Although, on one hand, his tenure as the Governor of the Indian state Gujarat boasts of extraordinary development, it also screams of harrowing tales of criminal injustice during the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, for which Modi is held responsible.
Communal Riots In Gujarat
On 27 February 2002, a train with Hindu pilgrims aboard was stopped near Godhra station and set ablaze, trapping many people inside. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of 59 people, including 25 women and 25 children. The burning of the train was regarded as Muslim retaliation for the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque, one of the biggest Muslim holy sites in India.
The Hindu nationalists were enraged. Members of Modi’s own cabinet were instrumental in inciting violence. Local newspapers printed false stories describing the Muslim role in the train burning incident. Even Modi’s statement that the attack was carried out by “terrorists” was interpreted as a call for action against Muslims.
Rioters bearing swords and explosives stormed the streets. Muslims were paraded naked and forced to chant Hindu slogans. Some victims had their limbs severed while others were beheaded before being burned.
More than 1,000 Indian Muslims were killed. Homes and business centers were set ablaze. Women were violated, raped, and killed while children were murdered in front of their parents and vice versa.
Throughout the savage frenzy, the Modi government and law-enforcement agencies remained criminally inactive. The police stood by as the agitators and wreaked havoc in the cities.
Some went even as far to say that the riots were premeditated by the BJP government itself. Paul R. Brass, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington, described the Gujarat riots as “a systematic pogrom enacted with precision and extreme brutality by persons and organizations in the institutionalized riot system of the RSS family of organizations, including members of the BJP government, the police, and even members of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS).”
Modi and Muslims
Despite trying to shun his image as a hardliner Hindu nationalist, Modi’s views on Muslims in India are questionable and his attitude towards the Gujarat riots remains impenitent.
In several interviews and election campaign addresses, Modi has repeatedly tried to dodge his way around questions relating to Muslims. He abruptly ended an interview with Karan Thapar (see video above) due to the latter’s scathing questions about the Gujarat riots.
Unlike his contemporaries, Modi refused to wear a Muslim skullcap and did not condemn the deaths of Muslims in the 2013 riots in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
According to an Economist article, “By refusing to put Muslim fears to rest, Mr Modi feeds them. By clinging to the anti-Muslim vote, he nurtures it.”
Now that Narendra Modi is elected to be India’s Prime Minister, he faces a plethora of challenges ahead. Among his foreign policy contentions include stabilizing relations with neighboring Pakistan. Both countries have fought major wars and continue to be mired in mistrust over key strategic issues. Modi’s task will be to put aside his Hindu nationalist ambitions and pave the way for future cooperation between the two countries.
He also faces considerable challenges on the domestic front. Some of those challenges relate to his party’s relationship with the Muslims of India. Ashutosh Varshney writes in Indian Express, “[I]f Modi is unable to change the RSS, considerable difficulty lies ahead. The narratives of development and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism will become embattled twins, coexisting not peacefully but in great tension, one threatening to consume the other, creating potentially serious problems of governance.”
Although Modi’s domestic agenda is mainly economic, the ghosts of his pugnacious political past will continue to haunt him – possibly forever.