The Labour Party’s Modi Problem: Ahead of the Indian Prime Minister’s Visit

by Sneha Krishnan

The Labour Party has been through a huge upheaval in the past few months: from its big losses in the 2015 general election to Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as leader, it seems every week is newsworthy. And every news article appears to suggest big contradictions within the party: struggles between old, new, and newer; between ‘hard left’ and ‘tory lite’. Now, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to make his address to Wembley Stadium, another set of contradictions is clear. Labour Friends of India, which, in their own words ‘endeavours to strengthen relations between the Labour Party and India and engage the UK-Indian Community with British politics’, is among the ‘Welcome Partners’ for Modi’s visit to the UK. Despite being acquitted of involvement in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in the state he was then heading, Modi is still a staunchly Hindu Nationalist figure and his support of cow protection and caste panchayats is deeply embedded in Hindu Nationalist organisations. The Modi government’s ‘beti bachao’ or ‘protect the daughter’ campaign is indicative of the problem with the conservative response to sexual violence in India: it remains mired in patriarchal protectionism, and seems to think that caste and communal violence are entirely separate issues. The ‘protection’, further, does not spare ‘daughters’ like anti-communalism activist Teesta Setalvad, who are subjected to frivolous investigations and harassed by the police. Why is this man – whose visit many hundreds of South Asians, including anti-caste and feminist coalitions, plan to protest in London, as they did in New York City in 2014 – so attractive to the Labour Party?

The Labour party’s role as ‘Welcome Partner’ in Modi’s visit cannot be assumed to be a passive gesture. After all, Labour Friends of India chairman, Barry Gardiner has been vocally supportive of Modi for many years now. Among Indians, he is best remembered for an abrasive interview with NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan in 2013. While Razdan poses what are at worst badly worded questions about the controversies that shroud Modi, Gardiner answers her with patronizing aggression, advising her to respect the Indian Supreme Court’s acquittal of the then Gujarat Chief Minister of his role in the 2002 pogrom. Gardiner is MP for Brent North, a constituency significantly composed of Hindu South Asians, and home to the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS) temple, which has been described as Britain’s first authentic Hindu Temple. The BAPS, known for its traditionalist politics on caste and gender[1], is headquartered in Modi’s native state, Gujarat. It would seem as though Gardiner and Modi share more than we would imagine.

The Brent Hindu Council (BHC), which has close relationships with the borough’s local authorities, is affiliated with the stridently Hindu Nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a number of caste groups that bring together members of upper and middle castes.[2] As Chetan Bhatt shows in his book on this subject,[3] this council includes no affiliations with moderate Hindu groups, anti-caste associations, or with Dalit groups. As Bhatt further points out, groups like the RSS and the VHP in the UK have long been painted by British sociologists as ‘youth groups’ or bodies for the cultural self-education of Hindus, even as they have been implicated in a range of acts of communal violence in India: not least the violent demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. That Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are closely aligned with these organisations is, further, a well-established fact.

We might contrast the treatment that the BHC has received from the politicians with the abrasive treatment meted out to Muslim groups and mosques within the country. As a growing scholarship on Hindu diasporas shows, Hindus abroad are keen to establish themselves as a ‘model minority’: as hard working, nationalist, security-conscious and comfortable with the undercurrent of Islamophobia as anyone else. Hindu constituents are typically addressed as a hardworking, educated, and socially mobile minority by British politicians wearing temporarily painted upon tikas (red mark on the forehead). Their links – via the organisations that fund them – to mass acts of violence in South Asia, are rarely mentioned. Groups such as the BAPS have facilitated such mobility for Hindu middle and upper castes, allowing them access to social networks from which Muslim and Dalit immigrants from the same regions are excluded. It is this context that allows MPs like Gardiner – and also Keith Vaz, Virendra Sharma, Steve Pound and Seema Malhotra – to maintain an aggressively pro-Modi stance. In response to an email that this writer sent him regarding the Modi visit, Gardiner goes as far as making sweeping, and patently false, claims that communal and caste violence are actually on the decline. Leave alone the daily emerging anecdotal evidence in the form of news reports on the lynching, murder, or rape of Muslims and Dalits, India’s own home ministry reports a 25 percent rise in communal violence.

Gardiner’s position is certainly not generalizable as ‘the Labour position’. Jeremy Corbyn has been very vocal with his criticisms on violence against Dalits, the lower caste group most affected in the current Modi regime. A state chief minister belonging to Modi’s party recently likened a case of horrific violence in which Dalit children were burned alive, to dogs being stoned. As the latter would not be brought to the state government’s attention, he averred, neither should the former. Given his history, we can assume Corbyn shares the outrage that many feel at Modi’s deafening silence in cases such as this. John McDonnell in a recent public speech responded to a question about Labour support for Modi with his own strong stance against the Indian Prime Minister’s communal regime. He has said that he will not be meeting with Modi during his visit, and hopes to initiate a wider conversation within the Labour Party on this issue. We can only hope for such a conversation. The Gardiner position on Modi does not exist in a vacuum and this is likely to open the proverbial can of worms for the party on a range of issues.

After all, it is very difficult to prise all this apart from India’s emergence as yet another frontier in global squabbles over equally ‘development’ and the ‘war on terror’. Ahead of Modi’s arrival in the UK, Indian authorities have cracked down on and arrested hundreds of activists in Indian-administered Kashmir. In the past month, at least fifty academics, authors, screenwriters and other artists have returned National Awards, making statements about the growing state of intolerance, and the gradual loss of freedom of speech in the country. In perhaps the most damning of these statements, Booker Prize winner and longtime activist Arundhati Roy writes: ‘We say we have “progressed”, but when Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did, that “to the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors”, without getting attacked, lynched, shot or jailed? Which writer can write what Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in his “Letters to Uncle Sam”?

What does all this have to do with Britain, and the Labour Party? India is far from the only country in which ‘anti-national’ speech is increasingly censored and prosecuted. Consider even the number of times we’ve had the ‘Jeremy Corbyn is anti-national. Look he didn’t sing the national anthem’ vs. (in the words of The Guardian): ‘Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t be more British if he was bleeding tea’ argument. In more extreme circumstances, the growing body of legislation on ‘non-violent extremism’ in Britain, many have argued, really threatens to create what Roy in the article cited above, goes on to describe as ‘intellectual malnutrition’. After all, Britain is today a state where a Muslim student reading a book about terrorism is liable to questioning for possible leanings towards violent terrorism, as is a school student seeking to raise uncomfortable questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is this context really which enables MPs like Barry Gardiner to cast the violence that Modi’s government has enabled with its silence, as collateral damage in what is heralded as India’s hurtling progress towards ‘development’. Social theorists speak of ‘surplus populations’[4] who can be ’let die’. This is the not just a neglect that faces the many hundreds who have raised questions in India on the state’s authoritarianism in Kashmir, the impunity it lends to caste violence, and the growing numbers who are victims of anti-Muslim violence, but one that similarly faces those in the UK who have questioned the gradual impoverishment of marginal populations in the austerity regime, and the growing racial tensions that produced this year, a general election where race played a significant role.

MPs like Gardiner echo a more general liberal common sense espoused equally by American politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton around notions of ‘terror’, ‘violence’ and ‘development’. In standing against this common sense in their wide ranging critiques of the global war on terror and its effects on the Middle East, against the seemingly pressing necessity of an austerity regime, and, in attempting to prise apart the complex intersections of caste, religion and race at play in the emerging collusions between Hindutva forces in the UK and British liberals, politicians like Jeremy Corbyn are really questioning the ethical foundations of liberalism as it is practiced in politics today. So, as far as conversations within the Labour Party go, this one is vital: going well beyond Modi, it has the potential to force the party to question where it seeks to position Britain in an emerging world order.

To return to the question of Modi’s visit to the UK. As Amartya Sen said in a recent public lecture at the LSE, to stop the Indian Prime Minister visiting at all would be a diplomatic slap-on-the-face that shows a lack of awareness of the continuing weight of colonialism in UK-India relations. The question to ask of the Labour Party however is why a body that is named ‘Labour Friends of India’ appears to be in such uncritical support of a political leader, whose espousal of a casteist and communal platform many progressive Indians and British South Asians are strongly against. As a ‘friend to India’, one would hope that the Labour Party could look beyond the interests of Mr Gardiner’s constituents in Brent to the many who stand opposed to the politics of the BAPS and of the Hindu Right more generally. Whether this issue will be substantively addressed, or brushed under the carpet, is something of a superficial move, remains to be seen.

Sneha Krishnan is Junior Research Fellow in Human Geography at St John’s College Oxford. She researches youth, postcoloniality and education.

[1] Bhatt, Chetan, ‘Dharmo rakshati rakshitah: Hindutva movements in the UK’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23 (3) (2000), 559-593.

[2] Bhatt, Chetan, Liberation and Purity: Race, New Religious Movements and the Ethic of Postmodernity, (London: Routledge, 1997).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Li, Tania Murray, ‘To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations’, Antipode 41 (s1) (2010), 66-93.


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