After being banned from entering the UK for 10 years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a red carpet welcome from the British government and Indian diaspora on Thursday as he began a three-day state visit to the country.
Modi’s itinerary includes lunch with the Queen, addressing parliament and staying at Prime Minister David Cameron’s country estate, Chequers.
But critics have condemned the pomp of Modi’s visit at a time when Indian writers, academics and activists warn of a growing atmosphere of intolerance and intimidation under his leadership in India.
Modi is the third in a string of controversial state leaders to be hosted by Britain in the past two months, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit last month and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stay in September.
Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit the UK since 2006, and his visit has polarised opinion among British politicians and the Indian diaspora.
In 2002, an arson attack on a train in Gujarat province, where Modi was chief minister, killed 59 Hindu pilgrims and sparked anti-Muslim pogroms.
Estimates vary, but over the following few months, more than 1,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed. Women were raped, mosques destroyed and bodies dumped into mass graves.
Modi was accused of turning a blind eye to the killings and the UK, US and EU swiftly cut off diplomatic relations with him.
A decade later, India’s Supreme Court cleared Modi of complicity in the killings – a ruling challenged by some Indian Muslims – but the leader has been criticised for showing a lack of remorse for the tragedy. The ban on Modi visiting the UK was lifted in 2012, soon after the ruling.
Modi, the former regional organiser for the right-wing Hindu group RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), is now prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. His centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swung into power in May 2014 and has close ties with RSS.
Analysts cite the leader’s clever use of social media as one reason for his rise in popularity, both at home and abroad.
He was the first Indian politician to open a Twitter account and now has nearly 16 million followers, making him the second most followed politician after US President Barack Obama.
The global social reach of 140 characters is partly why many in the Indian diaspora feel closer to Modi than previous Indian leaders – and analysts say that has helped pave the way for a global political platform.
Difference in opinion
In July, 39 MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling on Cameron to raise human rights concerns with Modi during his visit.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a supporter of the motion. It calls for the release of Indian political prisoners, several of whom are on hunger strike, draws attention to human rights abuses in Kashmir, and criticises the Indian government’s ban on the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter,” which covers the gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi.
Modi also faces condemnation for stopping Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from coming to Britain as she was about to board her plane. Pillai was on her way to brief MPs on her work.
In 2013, Corbyn called on the-then coalition government to reinstate a ban on Modi entering the UK. However, the leader of the opposition recently announced his plans to meet with the Indian leader privately on Saturday to discuss human rights.
Celebrating culture and diversity
On Friday afternoon, Modi will address 60,000 people – almost all British Indians – at a grand reception entitled: “Two Great Nations. One Glorious Future” in Wembley Arena.
Guaranteed to cause ‘Modi-mania,’ the cultural event coincides with Diwali and will end with a huge fireworks display.
A ‘Modi Express’ bus has toured iconic landmarks in London for the past month and dozens of the buses will transport ticket holders to and from the arena.
On Thursday, singer-songwriter Navin Kundra tweeted: “Oh My God! I’ll be singing for PM @NarendraModi & 60,000 of you at @WembleyStadium TOMORROW! So excited!!! #ModiInUK”
The event has been organised by Europe India Forum in partnership with 450 organisations.
Businesses and individuals have contributed to the costs, including four Labour MPs, who did not sign the EDM, and are donating their pay rise for November. A 2,000-strong volunteer force will help out on the day.
The event is perhaps a promise of what is to come following Cameron’s announcement that 2017 will be the UK-India Year of Culture.
A blanket for Modi
As the two leaders met on Thursday, two groups of demonstrators gathered outside Downing Street.
About 200 supporters of the Indian prime minister were on one side of a police barricade that separated them from those who had come to protest against his visit.
They waved flags with the Union Jack on one side and the Indian emblem on the other, and shouted: “We love you Modi.”
The number dwindled to about 50 before Modi had left Downing Street but those who remained cheered as he drove past. A Red Arrows flypast displayed the colours of the Indian flag and the London Eye was also lit up in the colours of the flag.
Indian Ladies in the UK (ILU) – an Indian diaspora women’s group – spent a month crocheting a blanket in honour of Modi’s visit.
“Every woman in London’s ILU branch has made a square for the blanket,” said Gayatri Challa. “That’s over 2,000 women. We are sending a message through the blanket – for the protection of the human.
“The blanket is not just for the rights of women in India but for women all over the world. When women are together we can make our mark in a men-centric world.”
The women hope to give the blanket to the Indian leader at Friday’s reception, but bureaucratic red tape may hinder their efforts.
Suresh Mangalagiri is from south India and has lived in London for 14 years. While a protester who had managed to walk the mile or so around police barricades was quickly shooed away by police, Mangalagiri spoke of his support for Modi because he is “a true nationalist and a dynamic leader”.
Mangalagiri thinks those demonstrating against Modi are misguided.
“What happened to the Sikhs [a series of anti-Sikh pogroms that left around 5,000 people dead] was in 1984 when Ghandi’s Congress government were in power,” said Mangalagiri.
“It had nothing to do with Modi. I don’t know why these people [demonstrators outside Downing Street] are against him but 99 percent, 100 percent of Indian citizens are with Modi.”
Much of the praise for Modi sits within an economic context.
“In Modi’s 10 or 15 years’ tenure in Gujarat he turned it into a developed state,” said Shri Jayu Shah from Friends of India Society International.
“Poverty is one of the biggest human tragedies around the world. India is one-sixth of the global population and to eliminate poverty you need commerce and industry, as chief minister, Modi achieved both.
“What he did in Gujarat he will replicate around India. India will become the next superpower within 20 years.”
Shah believes there is a vendetta against Modi. “The Supreme Court of India has declared him not guilty. The media is carrying out a vendetta but if you believe in democracy, in independent judiciary and in free press you should call it a day.
“You can’t continue and abuse somebody because you do not like them.”
Adding that he is “a capitalist, and proud of it,” the Londoner said that Modi has grasped the problems of the poor people of India. “Eighteen months in and the Indian leader is delivering the goods.”
‘Modi Not Welcome’
But dissident voices from the Indian diaspora are refusing to be quiet.
On November 8, Awaaz Network activists projected a picture of the Indian prime minister alongside a swastika onto the Houses of Parliament, angering Modi supporters around the world.
Two days later, tweeters against Modi’s visit participated in a Twitter hour, with the hashtag #modinotwelcome.
The Awaaz Network is an alliance of organisations involved in the #ModiNotWelcome campaign.
It includes the groups Sikh Federation UK, Caste Watch UK, Southall Black Sisters, Indian Muslim Federation and Voice of Dalit International.
More than 800 protesters, community members and women’s rights groups gathered outside 10 Downing Street and opposite the Houses of Parliament on Thursday.
Chants of “Free Palestine” could be heard among others, such as “Modi is a terrorist.”
“We are at this demonstration today to protest against Modi and the Indian government for their illegal occupation of Kashmir and the massacre of our people,” said Najib Afsar, the chief coordinator for Jammu Kashmir Liberation Council.
“I’ve been living in England for over 40 years but my heart and soul is in Kashmir. The suffering of our people we cannot bear. We will continue to challenge it and we will achieve our freedom.”
Nepali Santosh Kharel and Rakash Sapkota were there to protest against what they see as a blockade of Nepal by the Indian government.
“Nepalis have suffered from an earthquake recently and now they are suffering more with Modi’s blockades,” explained Kharel. “We are here to protest against him and his and his government’s attitudes towards us.”
Both demonstrators urged Modi fans to instead join them in calling for their rights. “We are here to wake up the people. They should be supporting us,” said Sapkota.
Raj Singh is a member of the World Sikh organisation and was one of the few in the crowd who is ambivalent about Modi’s visit.
“People are taking this seriously because in other countries they might not be able to protest like this,” he said.
“The UK government’s done a good job in planning for his visit. People on all sides get a bite of the cherry then can go home.”
Sikh Mindy Kawr was born in Punjab, India, but came to the UK when she was 18 months old.
“Modi’s government is treating us like second-class citizens. They’re not recognising the Sikhs; they say there’s no such thing as Sikhs,” she said.
“We want justice and we want people to know that what happened was genocide.
“Should Modi be receiving this type of reception?” Kawr rolled her eyes.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “It is only because he’s got power and Britain wants business with India that he’s here. They are not looking at human beings, they’re looking at money.”
The two leaders announced more than 20 business deals worth $13.7bn between the two countries following their meeting on Thursday.
Like the MPs donating November’s pay rise to help fund Modi’s grand reception, there may be more gestures of friendship towards Modi and the BJP as the relationship between the two countries grows increasingly profitable in the years to come.