Should we trust India’s Mr Modi?
House after house, shop after shop; smouldered and steamed in the brittle dawn light of Gujarat. Every one of the burnt out carcases, where once families thrived, belonged to a Muslim. In all, more than 1,000 Muslims died in three days of mayhem in February 2002. I was there reporting for Channel 4 News. The atmosphere was toxic with fear.
A few days earlier, a train had caught fire and incinerated 57 Hindus. There were allegations and rumours that the fire had been deliberately started by Muslims. It was enough to trigger some of the worst inter-communal riots of post-independence India.
The prime minister of Gujarat was one Narendra Modi. Today he is the prime minister of India itself. Gujarat’s population is made up of 9 per cent Muslim, 81 per cent mainly Hindu.
Our investigations on the ground found that the anti-Muslim riots were planned and highly organised. There was also the strong belief that Mr Modi’s hand had, at the very least, made little effort to restrain them. India’s Supreme Court has investigated these allegations and found not enough hard evidence to prosecute him. But the suspicions surrounding Mr Modi and his role were strong enough for the United States to deny him a visa for over a decade.
What we did find was that some of the Hindu extremists belonging to the notorious Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party (set up in 1925, directly inspired by fascist groups in Europe) had strong links with Mr Modi.
He has himself been a member of the group that has a history of attacks on religious minorities. We don’t know whether he is still a member. But Muslims in India, one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world, are not alone in worrying about where Mr Modi’s views are today.
Narendra Modi has proved himself as an effective and dynamic leader and reformer. The question today is whether this reformist zeal will be matched by a determination to heal, rather than exacerbate division and hatred in India’s vast and diverse population.
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