It is always engrossing to witness self-appointed conscience-keepers to the world climb gawkily down from the high pedestal of morality on which they had clambered. The envoys of the European Union in India have been performing verbal gymnastics since it became public that they had ended a 10-year ‘diplomatic boycott’ of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
The rationale that they have been offering for their climbdown makes for curious reading. India, they acknowledged somewhat belatedly, was a democratic country, and Modi had been elected to office thrice over; in any case, although they had borne the ‘white man’s burden’ with fortitude, it wasn’t for them to pick and chose whom they ought to deal with; and, after all, ten years had gone by since the riots, and no personal culpability for the riots had adhered to Modi himself, despite a high-decibel campaign by his detractors, and the rigorous working of the judicial mechanism, overseen by the Supreme Court, no less.
It was therefore time to re-engage with Modi, and the luncheon interaction that the EU envoys had with him on 7 January in New Delhi was the beginning of that realignment, they said.
You could, of course, read all this as the manifestation of a stone-cold “pragmatism” that governs international relations in a world of today where the notion of universal ethics stands eroded by the conduct of Western powers themselves. After all, human rights organisations find much at fault within EU frontiers that ought to engage European minds before they go about inspecting drains in far corners of the world.
But it represents rather more the fact that, as black Muslim activist Malcolm X said, the only thing that power respects is power. And with the economic might of erstwhile colonial powers in relative decline, it’s increasingly becoming difficult for their leaders to summon up duplicitous moral high-mindedness against emerging economic powers. Their steady and systematic capitulation to China, for instance, on the question of widespread human rights violations has been a humbling experience for them.
Yet, even at that interaction with Modi, the European Union envoys claim, they asked him some “tough” questions about his government’s passivity during the riots of 2002, and extracted an assurance from him that the “unfortunate” riots would never recur under his watch. If that is true – and there has been no independent confirmation of this transaction – it perhaps represents the nearest thing to an articulation of contrition from Modi for the riots of 2002.
For much of the past decade, Modi’s detractors have doggedly been looking to pin the blame for the riots directly on him. It was on Modi’s direct orders, they claim, that the police stood down – and allowed rioters a free hand to extract blood-for-blood vengeance for the Godhra train carnage. On that count, however, the Special Investigation Team appointed by the special court has exonerated Modi – although that ‘clean chit’ has since been challenged again in court.
The wheels of justice will spin for a long while, and the due process of law will likely take its course. Yet, as Modi primes himself to bid for a national role, it is perhaps time for him to address Indian citizens with the same candour that he appears to have brought to bear in his interactions with the European Union envoys.
In an earlier time, Modi used to abruptly end interviews with mediapersons whenever the subject of the 2002 riots came up (as for instance, here); those made him appear defensive and made for bad political optics. In more recent times, he has addressed the riots head-on, including in an interview to Samjwadi Party MP Shahid Siddiqui on just that subject. (Curiously, even though that interview was fairly interrogatory, it saw Siddiqui being pilloried for having given Modi a platform to explain himself.) His case was that he ought to be hanged if he was found guilty, but if wasn’t, the campaign of calumny against him ought to end.
But in a larger sense, it’s not just about personal culpability. In the same way that we hold Manmohan Singh accountable for the corruption that transpired under his watch, Modi as the head of the Gujarat government in 2002, would be better served by publicly accounting – without being forced on the defensive – for his government’s incapacity to bring the riots under control sooner. It is, of course, nobody’s case that these were India’s (or Gujarat’s) first or only riots. But they were, in a sense, India’s first “televised riots”, which is perhaps why the images from them linger on to this day – even though there have been far more egregious instances of communal violence. (I myself witnessed the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984, as I noted here.)
Modi could frame the discourse in many ways. He could, for instance, point to Gujarat’s record of having averted communal riots in the past decade – and the fact that the mills of justice are grinding slowly to bring riot perpetrators to book. He could, additionally, point to the fact that a cross-section of Muslims in Gujarat acknowledge that there are opportunities for economic and social advancement if they were ready to seize them.
Modi could outline all this as part of a vision for an inclusive India, which he can use to reassure religious minorities that so long as they don’t fall prey to “vote bank politics”, they have a far better chance of climbing up the social and economic ladder than they have under alternative political dispensations that ostensibly claim to protect their interests.
Modi’s failure to address the issue head-on with the Indian public over the past decade may not have mattered to him politically: he frequently played on the theme that his critics were giving Gujarat a bad name, which played well with his target audience in his home State. But as he spreads his wings and goes national, continued silence on the subject – or the perception that he is defensive about addressing the 2002 riots – will prove a political liability, not least because his political detractors and the media will raise it at every turn.
In the same honest manner in which he allayed the concerns of meddlesome European Union envoys, Modi can seek to tell his side of the story to an Indian audience, whose support he seeks to come to power. He may have a compelling story to tell, and he must get it off his chhappan inch ki chhati.