Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Monday, April 18, 2005

US Refusal of Visa to Indian Politician: Irrational Arrogance or Insipid Ignorance?

S K Modi - 3/22/2005

Imagine if those running for their lives out of WTC on September 11, 2001 were prevented from coming out of the burning and collapsing buildings by a group of Muslims. Had that happened, how would the Americans have reacted to local Islamic population? What would have been the magnitude of hate crimes in such a situation? How many would have been killed? How many mosques would have been burnt? It is very difficult to imagine a situation like this. But this is precisely what happened at Godhra in the western state of Gujarat in India on February 27, 2002. A train was forced to stop by pulling the emergency chain. An entire coach section was set on fire. Gasoline was spread inside the coach for igniting the fire. A crowd of about 1,000, all of them Muslim, pelted stones at the traveling Hindu pilgrims. The train burned and the passengers inside were not allowed to come out. In about 20 minutes, 58 were cindered to death. It was a rural, under-developed place. It was a scantily policed area, so neither the police nor fire-fighters reached the tragedy in time.

The Banerjee Inquiry Committee, appointed by the Indian Ministry of Railways, has concluded that the fire was caused accidentally. Though reported extensively in the developed world media, the report doesn't deserve even a rebuttal. Most individuals, including a large majority of members of the Congress party, which accuses the Gujarat administration of complicity in the riots that followed, dismiss the report as pure hogwash in private conversations.

Without deliberate inflammation, a train simply cannot be burnt in such short a time. For those who do not believe this, here is an interesting fact: in the last ten years, I am not aware of any deaths that have been caused by accidental fires in trains in India - except for the Godhra incident.

Burning of the train was barbarism at it's worst. It was a notch above what is generally described as terrorism. Whether one likes it or not, a reaction to the act was inevitable. Despite the sincere efforts of the Bush administration and security services, the number of hate crimes has risen significantly after the attacks on WTC towers. Now had there been a crowd outside the twin towers and the number of casualties would have been two or three times what it was, surely the number of hate crimes would have been much larger and the nature of crimes would have been much more serious.

There was an inferno of a mass reaction. The Hindu community felt enraged. For 18 hours, from 12 in the afternoon of February 28, 2002 until the morning of March 1, 2002, hundreds were killed. Approximately 1,000 people were killed in the aftermath of Godhra and at least three fourth of all killings took place during these 18 hours. All the big incidents of Best Bakery, Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society took place during these 18 hours. By the afternoon of March 1, 2002, armed forces had already been deployed and the violence had been largely controlled.

The burning alive of 58 innocent Hindus certainly does not justify retaliatory killing of 1,000 innocent Muslims. Nobody tried to justify the aftermath in any manner. But surely one needs to understand and appreciate the barbarous manner in which the 58 pilgrims were burnt and the passions it inflamed among the Hindus.

The next question is delivering justice to the victims - of the burning of the rail coach, as well as of the violence that followed.

Human Rights Watch of the US and Amnesty International have produced voluminous reports criticizing the Gujarat government for its failure to punish the guilty of the retaliatory killings. Even the official US government reports have been critical of the Gujarat government's handling of the post-Godhra violence. Leading liberal media organizations like the Washington Post and New York Times, of course, continue to slam Gujarat for its failure to deliver justice to the victims of communal riots that followed the burning of the rail coach.

Here again, common sense appears to have gone missing. Almost.

What happens when a crowd of 500 or 1,000 (in some cases, the crowds were as large as 5,000 and more) kills a small group of people? How does one identify who actually killed? Were those who were part of the crowd but were in the background less responsible? How does one go around identifying a thousand persons? Who would give witness against whom and who would identify whom? All those present at the scene were involved and the victims are all dead. How does one deliver justice in such cases?

Credence to this argument comes from the Godhra incident itself. Almost one hundred were arrested for suspected complicity in burning of the train. Nearly half of them have been released because of inadequate evidence. Cases against many of those still under detention have made little progress. Most of those being held behind the bars are still far from criminal conviction. Many of the witnesses have turned hostile. The Gujarat government is feeling virtually helpless in the matter. Few expect justice to be delivered to those who were burnt alive on the train. Incidentally, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have generally ignored the human rights of those 58 people.

Few mention the fact that according to official estimates, about two million people were involved in the post-Godhra riots. Hindu activist groups place the number of people who actively participated in the riots at around five million. Could millions of Germans have been published for the crimes committed during World War II?

The media in the developed world has often asked how could the rioters have known which shops belonged to the minority community, without government assistance? This again suggests refusal to think. Go to any US county. Everybody knows which shop or business is owned by white Americans, which is owned by an African-American and which is owned by an Asian. One may not know about the ownership of a swanky business in Manhattan, but in smaller places, everybody knows about the ownership of every shop and business establishment. The same is true in India.

The developed world has also been oblivious of the fact that riots spread to rural areas of Gujarat for the first time in history and rural Gujarat is among the most sparsely policed regions in the world. Number of police personnel per 100,000 population in Gujarat is around 100, which is less than one half that of most developed nations. In addition, police personnel in Gujarat have hardly any equipment. Their vehicles are poorly maintained, they have few fire arms and many police officers are physically "rusted" too - the number of serious crimes is so low that many of them have never had to fire a single shot in their entire careers.

Thousands of villages do not have any police posts at all! To put the whole thing in perspective, Gujarat witnesses about two rapes a year per 100,000 population. The US witnesses over thirty rapes per 100,000 population. Obviously, the US police is generally more 'active' and 'trained' for handling emergencies.

The mass reaction to the ghastly burning of the train was simply too gigantic for the Gujarat law enforcement agencies to control.

The charge that the police personnel did not do enough to prevent the rioters from killing needs to be viewed in conjunction with these facts. It is entirely possible that in some cases, some policemen might have watched the riots passively, ignoring their duty. It is even possible that a small number of policemen actually participated in the riots. Some of them have, in fact, been brought to justice. Action has been initiated in some such cases. But to accuse the entire law enforcement machinery of Gujarat of complicity in riots is outrageous, to say the least. It will be like calling the NYPD racist because a couple of policemen are caught abusing the rights of some African-Americans. The Gujarat police did fire thousands of rounds and nearly 100 people, mostly Hindus, were killed by police fire.

Clearly, there is need for understanding the sequence and the magnitude of the events and for taking a realistic approach, rather than making Gujarat a favorite whipping boy.

Exemplary punishment has been awarded to US soldiers who violated the human rights of their Iraqi prisoners. But has the US law covered all the incidents? Would the hunt for human rights violations in prison camps in Iraq continue indefinitely? What about the human rights of those US soldiers who have been killed by terrorists in Iraq?

It may be interesting for some global analysts to note that an eighteen year old girl, who survived the well known Best Bakery case, in which 14 persons were burnt alive by a crowd of over 500, had allegedly identified 21 accused persons. Could anybody dig out the maximum number of accused identified by a single witness in a single incident in the history of criminal justice? The girl was only 18 year old in February 2002. The incident took place after dusk. She managed to save herself by running to the roof of the building. Yet, on the basis of a statement by this girl, the Supreme Court of India ordered that the case be tried outside the state of Gujarat. So how far Gujarat and India should, or can, pursue justice?

This is the background, the set of events, that has led the US administration to conclude that the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Narendra Modi, has displayed religious intolerance and should, therefore, not be allowed to set foot on US soil. On March 18, 2005, the US embassy in New Delhi issued a statement, informing that Mr. Narendra Modi had been denied the diplomatic visa he had applied for and his multiple-entry tourist-cum-business visa that he had been holding since 1998 had also been cancelled.

Denial of visa to Mr. Modi has angered and disappointed a very large number of Indians, including those living and working in the US because the decision is based on incorrect facts and figures.

It is most unfortunate that US Congressman Joseph Pitts, who had asked the US administration to refuse visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi for visiting US (from March 20, 2005 onwards), did not bother to confirm even the basic facts. On March 18, 2005, after the US administration had officially announced its decision to deny visa to Mr. Modi, Congressman Pitts gave an interview to an Indian television channel, in which he said 2,000 persons were killed in the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. Mr. Pitts did not know that the actual number of casualties was less than 1,000.

It is possible for Mr. Pitts to argue that the figure has been deflated deliberately by the Gujarat government. But what about compensation figures? The Gujarat government has provided financial help to all riots-affected persons or the relatives of the dead. Why have HRW and Amnesty not taken the trouble of verifying these figures? Incidentally, the BBC has been using the figure of 1,000 for over a year now. So why did Congressman Pitts choose to state the figure of 2,000? Ignorance, or a casual attitude, is the only possible answer. This writer is not willing to ascribe motives to a democratically elected Congressman from Pennsylvania.

This writer has stated in one of the earlier articles in this journal that Indians aren't terribly fond of America-bashing. They generally take things in their stride, despite America's obsession with Pakistan, which is widely believed to be one of the largest harbourers of terrorists in the world. Recently, Pakistan has virtually admitted that it has sold nuclear technology to irresponsible rogue regimes. But denial of visa to Mr. Narendra Modi is likely to result in significant anti-American feelings in India. In fact, even the ruling Congress party, which perhaps hates Mr. Narendra Modi more than any other leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, has been forced to take a defensive posture and to defend Mr. Modi's legitimate rights as the democratically elected Chief Minister of one of India's most progressive states.

Mr. Narendra Modi himself has, understandably, taken a tough posture. He has demanded to know whether the US army officials should be denied visa by other countries of the world because of the incidents of ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners. He has demanded in unequivocal terms that the US mind it's own business. He has pointed out how Hindus are not even allowed to cremate their dead in Egypt and yet the US warmly welcomes Egyptian leaders. He has pointed out that minorities have been persecuted in Bangladesh for decades and the US has maintained a stoic silence.

Notwithstanding Mr. Modi's understandable (or otherwise) ire at the denial of visa, the US administration needs to do some introspection. It was an unforgivable gaffe. The US President had some support in India for his Iraq policy and that has plunged at least fifty percent because of this unnecessary and unwarranted imbroglio.

Chances are that somebody in India managed to convince the US Secretary of State Ms. Condoleeza Rice during her trip to India - it is doubtful whether the lady could have been "finally convinced" by boisterous five-star activists who have converted human rights protection into a full fledged business, or a few Congressmen who might have been conned into signing a letter because of their ignorance.

However, a lot of charity money floats around in the US economy and there is a huge competition to grab it. There are websites which teach these "professional do-gooders" ways of getting a higher share in available charity money. Intense competition for tapping those billionaires who are keen to fund human rights activism in particular is perhaps one factor that is likely to have contributed to this huge diplomatic gaffe on part of the US Secretary of State.

Exactly ho was the principal architect of the ridiculous suggestion of visa refusal to Mr. Modi is immaterial. The loser in this affair is the United States, as well as the people of America and India. Just at a time when relations between the largest and the most powerful democracies were beginning to look up, a diplomatic impasse has been created by some vested interests. The issue is far larger than what many would like to believe. Indians do not come out on the streets in such cases, but they do not ignore such events. If it is possible to measure the overall affection that Indians have for Americans, chances are that the quantum of this affection has plunged quite steeply because of the US administration's refusal to issue visa to Mr. Narendra Modi.

Immediately after the Iraq war, only some radical Islamists had demonstrated against the US and had called for boycott of American goods and companies. However, denial of visa to Mr. Modi has rattled a large number of Indians - Hindus and Muslims alike. Correspondents of CNN, BBC, Reuters and AFP, who followed Mr. Modi during his mass contact program in the last quarter of 2002 know the kind of following he enjoys. Before condemning the Gujarati clan as blood-thirsty or trigger-happy, any thinking US citizen or government official or activist needs to ask himself or herself a simple question - how many of Gujaratis living in the US have been implicated in violent crimes? Can the Gujaratis be described as generally militant by any standards? And if the US Gujaratis (they are the more aggressive ones, who left their country in search of greener pastures) are peace-loving, how can Gujarati Gujaratis be violent? An unfortunate incident (burning of the train) happened because of some skillful planning by some ruthless elements and the people of Gujarat felt enraged. It happened. It is over. The only option is to move on.
S K Modi is a freelance writer and has contributed articles to a large number of leading Indian dailies and magazines, besides having published specialized business newsletters for over a decade. He has also authored a book on the 2002 violence in Gujarat. A professional biographer, he lives in the city of Ahmedabad, in western India. He may be contacted at


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