On 21st July 2013, two identical letters signed by 64 Indian Members of Parliament belonging to 12 different political parties (39 Rajyasabha, 25 Loksabha) were faxed to the American President's office. Originally written and sent on 26th November and 5th December 2012 respectively, these letters urging the White House to continue the visa ban on Narendra Modi, were resented to thwart the BJP President Rajnath Singh's attempts to achieve American thaw vis-à-vis Modi. While two of the signatories have already denied having signed any such thing, Mohammed Adeeb, the parliamentarian who took the initiative for this campaign, swears by the genuineness of the letters.
Let us go back to the time when these letters were first sent.
On 29th November 2012, a bipartisan group of 25 American lawmakers had also written a letter advising the Obama administration against changing the persona non grata status of Narendra Modi. Their demand had come on the heels of a shift in the United Kingdom's stance on Modi, the subsequent news of a possible American détente, and a fortnight before Modi was to seek a fresh mandate in Gujarat.
While Modi had not reapplied for the US visa, the Congressmen sought for this preemptive action, fearing that a slack in international censure will make Modi's political climb easy, and will adversely impinge upon the process of justice for the victims of the Gujarat bloodshed. A sentiment echoed by Zakia Jafri, the wife of the Indian National Congress leader Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the 2002 post-Godhra violence.
Mrs. Jafri, present for the press release of the Congress men's letter at the Capitol Hill on 4th December 2012, said: "If he (Modi) succeeds to become the Prime Minister, my hopes for justice, along with the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Gujarat victims will be lost." She added, "I know in my heart, Chief Minister Narendra Modi is responsible for the killing of my husband."
While my sympathies are with Mrs. Jafri, in spite of her attempts to show the Indian judiciary and human rights record in a poor light in a foreign land, and while I am all for Modi being punished if he indeed is found guilty in Ehsan Jafri murder or any other riots cases, Mrs. Jafri and her advisors need to know that the court needs evidence, not rhetoric. And there has been none against Modi in eleven long years.
India’s Apex Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) has not only exonerated Modi from criminal culpability in Jafri’s case, but has in fact mentioned that Ehsan Jafri could have incited the rioters by first opening fire on them. Incidentally, the SIT was constituted for fair investigation of some of the 2002 cases as a response to the petitions by human rights organisations and activists, including Teesta Setalvad who holds power of attorney to represent Mrs. Jafri in the court. The SIT is now under attack by Mrs. Jafri and Setalvad for giving Modi a clean chit, and they are demanding one more round of investigation by another “independent agency.” There is a whole media-activists-politicians combine that wants the judicial process to be skewed in its favour to achieve the predetermined conclusion that Modi engineered the 2002 riots.
The recently surfaced letters of Indian MPs to President Obama, hence, fits into this Jafri-Congressmen narrative. For reasons best known to the parliamentarians, the letters were kept a secret seven months back, but released to the media now. Although our parliamentarians' audacity to outsource internal affairs to a foreign nation has not surprised me – they will do anything to settle political scores and secure their vote bank – America's behavior on this issue is perplexing.
First, Modi is elected by the people of Gujarat in free and fair elections. The apex court appointed SIT has exonerated him of any acts of collusion or inaction during the riots. Besides, communal flare ups are so common in India that if scrutinised, most, if not all, Indian chief ministers will disqualify for the US travel.
Second, the SIT has also exposed many gruesome murder and rape stories of 2002 violence as fabricated, and many witnesses, activists and rabble-rousers as motivated. The US administration is too smart to fall for the emotional appeals that are aimed at politically targeting one person.
Third, the wheels of justice have moved swiftly. According to the media reports, there have been 249 guilty verdicts as of August 2012, including 28-years rigorous imprisonment to Maya Kodnani, a former minister in the Modi government. Of this, 184 are Hindus and 65 Muslims (31 for Godhra incident and 34 for post-Godhra riots). Gujaratriots.com puts the total convictions until now at 443.
Contrary to the popular belief, the delay in justice has not happened because of the Gujarat government, but because of the human rights activists’ propensity to keep on interfering with the judicial process through numerous petitions. Many 2002 trials, including that of Jafri’s, were stayed for five and half years based on one such petition to the Supreme Court for reinvestigation of the riots cases.
Fourth, the Modi-Muslims narrative has taken a positive turn in Gujarat. Muslims acknowledge the fact that the post 2002 period under Modi is the first communal violence free decade in Gujarat’s history since 1713. They are benefiting from the communal peace and the development under Modi.
It should be highlighted here that nearly 200 Muslims had won the local elections on the BJP ticket in 2010-11. In 2012 assembly polls, the BJP bagged 21 of 34 constituencies that had more than 15% Muslim votes. It included four of the six seats where the Muslims were more than one-third of the population.
Prominent Muslims like Asifa Khan, a protégé of Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor, and A.I. Saiyed, a retired IPS officer, are among the hundreds of Muslims who have joined the Gujarat BJP recently. Many Gujarati Muslims even celebrate Modi’s birthday on September 17th; something that President Obama would surely not mind happening in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan on his birthday.
Fifth, given the people’s disenchantment with the current scam-ridden Congress-led alliance in Delhi, the BJP-led coalition stands a good chance of coming to power in the general elections of 2014.
Interestingly, an April 2005 cable of the US embassy in New Delhi had mentioned that the BJP leadership resents Modi’s visa revocation and that Modi’s ascension would harden the BJP attitude towards Washington as Modi will never forgive the US for ill-treating him. The report is likely to come true unless America quickly moves to drop Modi’s pariah status.
Sixth, Modi's thrust on good governance, devolution of power, business-like approach, and quick decision making are the traits that the US appreciates in its partners. He is someone who was applauded for his clean administration and good governance by America's own Congressional Research Services report.
Seventh, Modi is an extremely popular figure in India, as well as among the one million American Gujaratis. He is a potential PM and if he becomes one, the US will have no option but to welcome him as the elected leader of India. Even if he does not become one, Modi is and will continue to be a force to reckon with, in the Indian politics and the BJP.
China has grasped Modi’s prospects and inched closer to him in the past couple of years. Japan, Singapore, Israel, the UK and the EU have also warmed up to him.
Eighth, Modi’s US visa was revoked in 2005 for his alleged complicity in the violent Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 – full three years after the terrible episode in Gujarat’s history. It had come at the peak of the American war on terror. Washington had clearly played, and has continued to do so, to the global Muslim gallery by taking a moral high ground on the perceived persecution of the Muslims under Modi’s watch. Ironically, the American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have claimed many more Muslim lives than the Gujarat carnage.
America’s adoption of a storyline that employs disturbing terms like “Muslim persecution” and “genocide” without due diligence, in order to show American solidarity with the Muslims at a time when the anti-Americanism in the Islamic world is spawning more terrorists than the 2002 violence ever could, is a lose-lose tactic. What’s more, it is no less revolting than the Gujarat riots.
Ninth, America is known for its callous disregard for human rights by forming an axis of convenience with brutal despots across the world. It faces questions on its unstinting support to Israel against Palestine, for the “sad chapter in American history” Guantanamo Bay detention centre, and on the drone strikes on Pakistan that claim more civilians than militants. In the Indian context, neither the terrorism in Kashmir nor the atrocious 26/11 Mumbai attacks, have moved the White House to confront Pakistan, its ally in the war on terror.
America’s decision to treat a democratically elected CM of an Indian state as a persona non grata based on hearsays, therefore, is not only baffling, but is also a slight on the Indian democracy and justice systems. While the American opprobrium of eight years has not hindered the rise of Narendra Modi and will play no role in deciding his political future, it may turn out to be a strategic blunder on the part of the US that leads it to cede ground in India, a lynchpin in the Washington’s Asia Pivot.