ON THE LAST DAY OF SEPTEMBER, AFTER their talks in the White House, United States President Barack Obama decided to join Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr memorial in Washington. The plan had been for Modi to go alone, but at the last minute Obama decided to join him. The statue of King at the memorial evokes not only the man but also the Civil Rights movement. King’s feet are not visible, covered over in uncut rock. King’s emergence from the rock suggests that he is part of a movement. His face is stern, his eyes confronting injustice. Quotations mark the rock, including one that captured his anti-war politics—“It is not enough to say, ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it’.”
Modi’s gift to Obama had been memorabilia from King’s visit to India in 1959. Among these was a photograph of King placing a wreath on Gandhi’s tomb and an audiotape of King’s speech on All India Radio. That speech had been delivered on King’s final evening after a five-week tour of India—including to many sites important to the Indian freedom struggle and Gandhi. King’s speech settled on the theme of nuclear disarmament and the technology of destruction. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, he said, had been reluctant to listen when the world’s peoples called for an end to the nuclear arms race. For that reason, King hoped, “India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament”. This is precisely what India did at the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961. King’s last lines, which echo into 2014, spoke of the immense contradiction between the remarkable space technology and the devastation of armaments. “For in a day when Sputnik and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war,” he had said.
Obama and Modi had referred to the two probes around Mars that are ongoing—one an Indian (Mangalyaan) and the other an American (Maven). Such impressive scientific developments—the Sputniks and Explorers of our time—are dwarfed by the currency of war that brought these two leaders together. From the sublimity of the gifts and the visits to the King memorial came the ridiculousness of the renewal of the 10-year military agreement as well as the revitalisation of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. King and Gandhi would have picked up on one irony—that the planet around which the U.S. and Indian probes are currently in orbit is called Mars, the god of war.
May the Force Be With You
In order to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, Modi had to attain a U.S. visa. For a decade, the U.S. State Department had declined a visa for Modi on the basis of a recommendation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The ban had come because the Commission, a government body, had been wary of Modi’s role in the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. The visa ban irked Modi, who met with U.S. Consul General Michael Owen in Mumbai in late 2006 to complain that it was the work of “fringe NGOs” and those with “an axe to grind”. Owen praised Modi’s “positive accomplishments”, but said the U.S. believed in the “importance of holding people accountable” for the violence of 2002. Modi demurred, accusing the U.S. of “meddling” and pointing to U.S. human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib. No visa came then, and none would have come but for the electoral outcome this year.
Everything changed with Modi’s election. It meant a visa had to be provided for the Indian Prime Minister, whose allegiance to the U.S.-India relationship overrode all moral considerations. The shadow of 2002 refused to lift. Two plaintiffs (Asif and Jane Doe) filed a complaint with the Southern District of New York saying that Modi’s government was responsible for “organised violence, large-scale displacement of members of the Muslim minority population and the continuing denial of justice”. The day before Modi arrived in New York, the court issued a summons for Modi on the basis of this, which was ignored. Sitting heads of government are typically given immunity when in the U.S.
At the U.N., Modi’s speech contained little that was newsworthy—although few world leaders make headlines for their General Assembly speeches. Modi committed India to fighting terrorism and climate change, rebuked Pakistan and chided the Security Council for not opening its doors to emergent states. There were the statements that everyone makes but no one quite knows the implication of their commitment (“The eradication of poverty must remain at the core of the Development Agenda and command our fullest attention.”). There are the statements that are popular in an increasingly marginalised General Assembly as the Security Council and the Group of Seven (G7) draws all the decision-making (“We still operate in various Gs with different numbers. India, too, is involved in several. But, how much are we able to work together as G1 or G-All?”). Modi ended his speech with a call for an International Yoga Day. Yoga, said the Indian Prime Minister, will “help us deal with climate change”.
Modison Square Garden
Modi’s main event was not at the U.N., but in Madison Square Garden (MSG). Twenty thousand people (mostly Indian Americans) gathered in this venue for sports and music events to have Modi’s darshan. Around the MSG, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Modi and fill Manhattan’s avenues with an un-yogic form of testosterone. The energy was so toxic that one young man, Yogesh Tibrewal, who works at the financial consulting firm Deloitte, apparently led an assault against the television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai. The crowd had been heckling him for his supposed antipathy to Modi during the election season.
In the hall, a Bollywood aesthetic dominated. But it was a form of Bollywood kitsch that masked the wealth that was both in the room and behind the event. Big names included Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Abode’s Shantanu Narayen, MasterCard’s Ajay Banga and Morgan Stanley’s Kamesh Nagarajan, with Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria nearby. It was fitting that Anjali World, daughter of TIBCO’s Vivek Ranadive, sang the U.S. national anthem. This was the most impressive gathering of Indian American money.
Behind the money lay the organisation of the old U.S.-based Hindu Right. The Indian American Community Foundation (IACF), a new group that drew in many smaller Indian American organisations from across the country, ran the event. However, behind the IACF are old names from the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or OFBJP (Chandrakant Patel, Bharati Barai and Ramesh Shah), from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (Yelloji Rao Mirajkar) and from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Mahesh Mehta). Ramesh Shah’s son, Anand Shah, was in charge of media relations (his daughter, Sonal, had been briefly in the Obama administration). These men had led columns of non-resident Indians to India to campaign for Modi as part of the OFBJP’s “Mission 2014: BJP 272+” campaign. They had organised Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 speech at the MSG (to an audience of 3,000). This was the more dramatic follow-on.
Thomas Abraham, the leader of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, told me that Modi “was brought in as a rock star to the stage with sound and light in the background. The stage was revolving so that he could face all sections of the audience. There were about 28 Senators and Congressman and a Governor to greet him on the stage.” Biru Sharma, a businessman, said approvingly: “I have never seen such excitement and a cult following. He has assured the bigwigs and titans of industry that India is open for business. There will be no red tape or corruption.”
A protest outside the MSG went largely unnoticed. Sonia Cheruvillil said that a reporter from ABP News India lost interest in her when she said she was critical of Modi. “The media wanted a story that showed excitement, and our opinions, while they were very real and valid, did not fit the story.” Prachi Patankar, who helped organise the protest, said she and hundreds of others stood outside the MSG to “expose Modi’s complicity in the past crimes and the whitewashing done by the media and some sections of the diaspora community about his ideology”. The reaction to the protest was harsh. “There was a very hypernationalist, macho celebratory mood in the crowd,” recalled Prachi Patankar. “Any kind of dissent whether verbal or visual was attacked with abusive language.” She said when Rajdeep Sardesai tried to interview them “the crowd got angrier and abused us and him for giving us any space to express our views. They shouted so we couldn’t get any words out during the interview.”
Far from MSG, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Professor Sudhir Trivedi sat in his office, hoping that a letter his college had sent to Modi would earn a favourable response. Trivedi teaches computer science at Louisiana’s Southern University, a historically black college. Inspired by Modi, Trivedi had urged his college to honour him with a degree. A letter went to the Prime Minister offering him an honorary doctorate and urging him to visit the campus to be the commencement speaker in 2015. The visit would coincide with the inauguration of the Deendayal Upadhyaya Centre for digital learning. No response has come from Modi.
Southern University had little idea about the ideology of Deendayal Upadhyaya or of Modi. Unable to talk about these matters, the university spokesperson, Harry Tillman, was eager to have me speak to Trivedi, who in turn urged me to speak with Pankaj Phadnis. Phadnis, based in India, is the head of Abhinav Bharat, an organisation set up partly to promote the ideas of Veer Savarkar, the main proponent of Hindutva. Not far from Trivedi’s office is the law school where for many years the chancellor had been B.K. Agnihotri, the man selected by Vajpayee to be his Ambassador-At-Large. Agnihotri has a long history with the RSS, while Phadnis is a well-known proselytiser for the ideas and legacy of Savarkar. Trivedi told me that Agnihotri “has not been involved in the matter” of the honorary degree. But it is hardly coincidental that the figures of the past that circulate around this initiative (Upadhyaya, Savarkar) and the links of the men of the present (RSS, Abhinav Bharat) ring with the tones of the Sangh Parivar. Indeed, this is the manner in which the Parivar has grown its tentacles in the U.S. in public silently, with the pretence that their heroes are uncontroversial national figures. In his letter of invitation to Modi, Southern University’s president Ronald Mason writes of Upadhyaya as a man who “believed in working for service—not of any particular caste or creed, but of the entire human race”. There is no indication here of Upadhyaya’s offensive creed, from his 1965 Integral Humanism, that “when two Muslims come together” they form a “mob”.
A U.S. official told me that during the planning for Modi’s visit, Michelle Obama wanted nothing more than a “quiet lunch” rather than the 20-person dinner that had been planned. Both these options are considerably less than the 300-dignitary state dinner offered to Manmohan Singh (at the princely cost of $570,000). Michelle Obama is known to hold much stronger views on human rights than others in her husband’s team. But she was overruled. The dinner was modest, but it was a dinner nonetheless.
Obama and Modi co-authored an editorial in The Washington Post, which called for a “renewed U.S.-India partnership.” Their anodyne agreement did not depart from the earlier agreements. The U.S. remained eager to draw in India to its strategic initiatives, notably as a counter to China. The undertow from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc holds India back from full-scale partnership with the U.S. The editorial said little. It ended, “Forward together we go—chalein saath saath.” The Hindi line evokes the Civil Rights’ anthem, “We Shall Overcome”, much loved by Martin Luther King—“We’ll walk hand in hand”, hum chaleinge saath saath. The song had become popular in India through the Left’s initiative. Sanjay Gandhi suborned it during the Emergency. It has now been appropriated to cover defence and trade agreements that go against the spirit of King’s democratic socialism. Unlikely that this subject—King’s ideology—came up as Modi and Obama walked around his statue in Washington, D.C.