Why PM Modi shouldn't mind Silicon Valley protesters: They are like that only in the Bay Area

Narendra Modi is going to Silicon Valley. But the Bay Area is not just known for Google, Apple and Facebook. If Narendra Modi faces more protests there than anywhere, he can just chalk it down to a “Bay Area-style welcome”. In the Bay Area they are like that only.

I remember Khalistan supporters would hire a small plane with anti-India slogans to buzz above India Day parades there. The planes buzzed with their banners. The parade marched on. These days it’s best known as the shiny happy place that produces millionaires out of tech campuses. That's what is drawing Modi to it but it is a place that was also once known for dissent, radical politics, and protest. And that’s included Indians as well. It’s no accident the Ghadar party found its home in San Francisco and brought together students and farmers to organize against colonialism. In 1908 desi Berkeley students protested an English missionary giving a lecture about the immorality of Hindu priests. The San Francisco Call newspaper headlined it “Hindu students flay missionary.”

 Why PM Modi shouldnt mind Silicon Valley protesters: They are like that only in the Bay Area

PM Modi. Image Credit: Twitter @MEAIndia

The Bay Area is now the fountainhead of a new protest movement with a #ModiFail hashtag at its core. The same techonology that Modi is going to woo in Silicon Valley is being employed to “unwelcome” him. The ModiFail.com campaign is putting up billboards on major highways, creating a Facebook event and organizing social media to highlight what it feels is the other side of the Modi story. LGBTQ South Asians are using a #ChallengeModi hashtag to push Modi’s hosts, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook (an openly gay man) and Sundar Pichai to ask him about Section 377. That might not be on the PM’s priority list and it’s an issue he has steadfastly avoided commenting on. But that does not mean activists do not have the right to press him on their priorities.

Sources in the Overseas Friends of the BJP tell The Telegraph that they estimate the number of protesters could go up to 5,000. “This is a huge number because the number of Left-Liberals in the West Coast, drawn largely from Berkeley and Stanford universities, outstrip those on the East Coast,” a source tells the paper. In Madison Square Garden the protesters were a few hundreds squeezed into alleyways. “Barring a couple of Indian TV channel anchors, nobody noticed them. San Jose may be a different cup of tea,” said the source.

The Prime Minister and his government have wisely not reacted officially to this. However the reaction from the legions of Modi’s supporters has been vociferous. “It is very dastardly for people to protest against (Modi’s) visit,” said Yes Bank vice president Preeti Sinha. Twitter has been flooded with comments about how unprecedented this is, how shocking and insulting. And unpatriotic. Even the Chinese do not spread hatred for their PM/country the way NRIs and PIOs are doing said one upset desi. The Chinese are hardly the benchmark of dissent and in fact the Falun Gong protesters do protest.

When George W Bush, post the Iraq war traveled around the world he too had to face vociferous protesters. Even his host countries’ citizens joined the chorus with Diego Maradona sporting a t-shirt that branded Bush a war criminal. The Times of India notes that Morarji Desai faced Left-wing protesters during a brief visit to Berkeley. Sikh groups did not spare Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. Why is it surprising that Modi, as one who evokes extreme reactions from both his supporters and opponents, is also a protest-magnet?

The protests, which are supposed to be in designated free speech areas, might not be polite. They might be ineffective. They could even backfire. And they are minority and will surely be overshadowed by the red carpet bandobast for Modi.

But there is nothing fundamentally wrong about dissent.

That is what some in the diaspora do not get either and it does not need to be shut down, tarred and feathered. That includes the likes of well-known Bay Area desis like Raj Bhanot. Bhanot, one of the founder members of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh made news in 2014 when he reportedly confronted Shubha Mudgal before a concert saying he would not tolerate her anti-Modi stand. Bhanot is helping organize Modi’s Bay Area welcome.

Recently some 130 academics wrote a letter ahead of the Silicon Valley trip critiquing Modi’s record and his Digital India initiative and asking Silicon Valley companies to be wary of supporting it and the “uncritical fanfare” around the PM’s visit. A coalition of 150 academics hit back with a counter letter welcoming Modi to Silicon Valley. One can argue the contentions in the letters but not the give-and-take. But many of those who signed the initial letter also reported email harassment from the likes of Hindu Vivek Kendra which could not countenance any critique of the PM.

None of this is about Narendra Modi’s right to visit Silicon Valley. As the duly elected Prime Minister of India he has the right to do so. And these companies have every right to welcome him with all due respect and warmth. By that same token those opposed to him, even NRIs and PIOs, have every right to express their dissent and question him as long as they do not prevent those welcoming him from doing their job. The same democracy which gives some of them the right to be his cheerleaders (support the PM gratefully acknowledged at Madison Square Garden) also gives others the right to challenge him. This is not about embarrassing the Prime Minister and the height of un-patriotism.

#ModiFail might not be polite but it is about #DemocracySuccess. Many might not like it but alas, Facebook has not given us a Dislike button either.

Updated Date: Sep 25, 2015 18:45:43 IST