How Narendra Modi Is Remaking His Image Along With India's

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, is ready to begin yet another tour of the continents, this time Africa. He is a busy world traveler, eager to make connections around the planet. There is a great ambition to Modi’s journeys: he would like to suggest that India is a country that has arrived.


A young man with a corporate job tells me Modi’s presence has given weight to his Indian passport. “Previously we used to be seen as second-class citizens,” he told me. “Now, thanks to Modi’s work on India’s brand, we are given respect. My passport is respected.”

Surprise is the reaction from sections of the Indian middle- and upper-middle-classes to suggestions of Modi’s failures. They have yoked their own arrival into world history with his journeys from one world capital to another. When Modi tweets a selfie with the prime minister of Australia or Japan, it is as if the entire Indian middle- and upper-middle-classes have thrown themselves into the frame: this is a civilizational form of photo-bombing.

Already forgotten is the fact that the United States government had for a decade denied Modi entry into the U.S. The reason for this denial can be found in an event that is also slowly being forgotten; the massacre of thousands of Indian Muslims in the state of Gujarat during the pogrom of 2002. Modi, at the time, was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was ultimately responsible for the security of his people, not just Gujarati Hindus, but all those who lived in Gujarat regardless of their religious background.

As the U.S. Ambassador to India at that time, David Mulford, put it bluntly, “He was responsible for the performance of state institutions.” Based on the International Religious Freedom Act (1998), the U.S. felt Modi was answerable for “severe violations of religious freedom.” Feelers to the U.S. over the years resulted in bad news from the U.S. State Department. “Nothing’s changed,” Richard Boucher, who ran the South Asia desk, would tell those who asked.

Several commissions of inquiry could not find Modi responsible for the carnage. He remained above the fray. Nothing could touch him. But the stench of culpability would not be washed off.

***

In February 2002, a train carrying right-wing activists came to a halt at Godhra, in Gujarat. They had returned from Ayodhya, where the right-wing had destroyed a 16th century mosque 10 years earlier. A fracas at the train station led to a fire in one of the compartments, which led to the tragic death of 59 people.

Modi did not wait for a forensic assessment. He made inflammatory remarks immediately, such as, “It was a preplanned attack. The charred bodies which I saw at Godhra railway station testified to the black deed of terrorism.”

The bodies of the dead were carried to the state capital, Ahmedabad, with the right-wing groups taking out processions, braying for blood. The situation was very tense. Violence began immediately. The police, under Modi’s ultimate command, did not act to settle the situation. They allowed the killing spree to continue. Thousands of people died, and many more thousands lost their livelihoods and their confidence in their own state.

It is a festering sore for the people of Gujarat and for India.

***

Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub’s new book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, is based on her brave reporting in the state to uncover what had been buried deep in the memory of high officials. Ayyub knew that no one would talk to her if she asked them directly about the role of Modi and his close associates in the violence. She went undercover, posing as an Indian student from the United States who was making a film on Gujarat. It was a clever disguise, because it played on the desire among these officials to be on display in America. Slowly, doggedly, Ayyub was able to get the former policemen and high officials to tell her their story. What they say is damning and important.

G. C. Raigar, the head of intelligence in Gujarat during the riot, tells Ayyub why the various investigations failed to uncover a serious conspiracy. “You know it’s difficult,” he tells her. “Because these people do not give direct orders, they are invisible.” 

Chakravarthy, head of the police in the state, told Ayyub that Modi did not give him direct orders to hold the police back and allow the mobs to kill the Muslims. “They didn’t give any illegal orders to me. He won’t sign his death warrant.”

When Ayyub asked him if the orders were given “invisibly,” Chakravarthy said, “It will be on a one-on-one basis, not in front of 20 people out of which five may be against you.”

Ayyub’s important sources confirm what junior police officers had said—that Modi had told the state apparatus to stand down so the forces loyal to him could run riot across the state. Police officers who tried to intervene to stop the violence or who would later blow the whistle on the failure to stop the violence found themselves being demoted or transferred to marginal posts.

Ayyub talked to P.C. Pande, the top cop, who told her that officers like Rahul Sharma, Satish Verma and Kuldeep Sharma went on the “wrong side of the government.” Kuldeep Sharma, Pande said, laughing, “was made the Chairman of the Sheep and Wool department.”

Senior police officer Rajan Priyadarshini told Ayyub of Pande, “he did not take any action against the rioters. He should be booked. He’s in the good books of [Chief Minister Modi]. He’s his blue-eyed boy. He was responsible for the killing of Muslims. Hence you see, he has been given a position post-retirement also.”

Given the silence by high officials for career reasons and the marginalization of those who wanted to tell the truth, it is not surprising that no case against Modi would stick. He was clever enough not to leave a paper trail of his own complicity, and even cleverer to make sure that those who heard his orders would not say anything. It was left to hearsay and to the words of people who appeared to be merely disgruntled at being set aside from promotion.

Ayyub’s book collects the words of high officials who suggest the extent of state complicity in the 2002 pogrom. So far, only the ground level instigators of the violence—people like Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi—faced the police and prison. The real culprits have not had to answer for their crimes.

***

What does impunity do? It creates a culture of self-regard and disregard for law. After the 2002 pogrom, Modi’s main associate, Amit Shah, is said to have ordered the execution by “fake encounter” of a series of people in the name of terrorism. The killing of Sohrabuddin and Israt Janan are emblematic of the state’s involvement in extra-judicial executions.

C. G. Raigar, a senior police officer, admits to being involved in the Sohrabuddin case. When asked if he had been involved in “fake encounters,” he tells Ayyub, “I was in just one. One criminal [Sohrabuddin] was killed in a false encounter. What was foolishly done was they killed his wife.”

The encounter, Raigar says, was ordered by Amit Shah. “In a democracy if a person becomes too big,” says Raigar, “it can be detrimental, like this minister, the home minister [Amit Shah]. He controls transfers, postings, promotions. And [if] somebody does not do his job, he’s sent to a side posting. Which is why I asked to be transferred during the Sohrabuddin case.”

Raigar did not want to do it. Shah did not lack people do his bidding. That had been clear in the Ishrat Janan case, when this young woman was executed in public and then when the government claimed she was a terrorist. Ayyub gets police officers to tell her that nothing in the government story rings true. Girish Singhal tells Ayyub that Ishrat Jahan was not a terrorist. The justification for the action, however, should send chills down the spine of every American.

“You know certain cases are difficult, and you have to tackle them differently. Look at what America did post-9/11. There was a place called Guantanamo. They were kept there, detained, tortured. Magar theek hai na [but, it is ok, isn’t it?]. Not everybody was tortured. There are 10 percent who have been tortured and even if they have not committed anything, 1 percent may be wrong. So this has to be done to save the nation, to save the country.”

Modi would likely say the same thing if he would ever speak openly about both the 2002 pogrom and the encounter killings that came after it. It is perhaps what he would tell President Obama when they met several times over the course of the past few years. After all, Obama has no high ground here. Guantanamo continues. The kill-list for drone strikes are the international version of the “fake encounters.” And the 2002 pogrom could very well be wrapped up in the kind of genocidal wars prosecuted by the U.S. against Iraq and by Israel against the Palestinians. Modi is in good company then. He can be smug in his world travels.

The arc of history finds itself unable to bend toward justice. It is being blocked by hypocrisy. Morality has a lonely existence in these times. Ayyub’s book keeps open a conversation that cannot be allowed to end. The work of activists such as Teesta Setalvad (whose memoir will appear later this year) are also essential to the work of making sure that the 2002 pogrom is not ignored. That pogrom is the foundation of the current government of India. It is hard to treat it as distant history.

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