It is a grey November morning and a small crowd is marching on the road towards Parliament Square from Downing Street while waving their national flags and placards with rage. Demonstrators representing Sikhs, Muslims, Kashmiris, Nepalese and human rights organisations are using loudhailers to chant, “Modi go home.” They are here to protest against the Indian prime minister’s visit to the UK, who will be arriving in a few hours for talks with David Cameron.
Surrounding the cordoned off area, a dozen apathetic-looking police officers are watching the show. With people from conflicting faiths causing chaos, the lack of officers safeguarding the area is surprising. A few pro-Modi demonstrators quietly waving their Indian flags are drowned out by the noise.
The protests began after the British government made a decision to end its boycott of Narendra Modi; a man who is being held responsible by thousands of Indian nationals and people abroad, for the rising climate of religious intolerance in India. A recent case of sectarian violence was the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man called Mohammed Akhlaq after he was found storing and consuming beef in his own home. Modi’s Hindutva government have been planning a ban on beef nationwide since cows are sacred in Hinduism.
However, the main issue that started the anti-Modi campaign is the Gujarat riots that took place in 2002. Thousands of Muslims were killed, three of whom were British tourists visiting India. The riots were the aftermath of a train fire that took place in the town of Godhra – a predominantly Muslim area. The train was loaded with Hindu activists and pilgrims; fifty-nine were killed, mostly women and children. The incident sparked a two-month killing spree in which Hindu mobs began to rape and kill their Muslim counterparts.
Modi, who was serving as the chief minister of Gujarat at the time was accused of complicity as he failed to intervene in the matter and instead remained aloof. The UK subsequently imposed a 10-year diplomatic boycott alongside the US and other EU nations cutting off ties with the Prime Minister. Regardless of protests and the matter being brought to the Supreme court in India, it was concluded that due to the lack of evidence, Modi was given a clean slate.
Since then, there has been a backlash from the public who are unhappy with this decision and many have appealed to the court to change their decision.
The jeering crowd is predominantly male, with a few female British Indian activists zealously engaging in the demonstration for women’s rights. The violation of women’s fundamental rights has become a major concern in India after several, rape and domestic violence cases, have sparked a debate suggesting it needs social reform. The rest of the female participants have slowly shifted into a corner and seem to have tagged along with their husbands as a sign of moral support.
People have automatically segregated themselves. Muslims are standing with Muslims. Sikhs are standing with Sikhs. Hindus are standing with Hindus. The motto, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ doesn’t seem to resonate with most of the crowd, despite their coming together to fulfil the same purpose – to tarnish the celebrations of Modi’s arrival.
Other organisations such as the South Asia Solidarity Group, Sikh Federation and Southall Black Sisters, have joined hands with the Awaaz Network. ‘Awaaz’ campaigns for secular democracy across South Asia. They have been protesting against Modi’s arrival for several weeks. The group came forward a few days ago to claim responsibility for pulling a political stunt on remembrance day after a projection of Narendra Modi holding a sword with the Hindu symbol – aum – transformed into a swastika, was seen on the Palace of Westminster alongside words, “Modi not welcome.” When asked about the incident, a spokesperson for the group said: “the symbol reflects the “fascistic ideology that Modi stands for.”
The uproar has come at a time where many feel that the Indian prime minister has clear ‘Hindutva’ objectives to turn India into a Hindu nation. There is a rising tide of Hindu nationalism that has provoked minorities of other faiths to fight against this sectarian hatred. Known for being the world’s largest democracy, India seems to be filled with thousands of people living in fear of what can be seen as the beginning of an intolerant nation.
After half an hour of waiting for the Indian prime minister, the clamour starts to calm down and protestors begin to talk among themselves. A woman looking heavily exhausted in a traditional Indian attire is holding a placard saying “Modi is inhuman.” She has been hollering for an hour while standing at the front, eagerly awaiting Modi’s arrival. As she chants, “Modi is not welcome,” several others start to follow. Pragna Patel is the director of Southall Black Sisters. An Asian organisation based in Southall involved in defending the human rights of women. She says “Modi has failed to uphold the constitution of India and we must dispel his style of governance.”
Surprisingly, the road is filled with mainly Kashmiri representatives from Pakistan causing the disruption. A few arrive in a lavish black Jaguar and park in the middle of the road in Whitehall. The sense of pride on their faces can be seen from their elated smiles as they have their pictures taken holding slogans that say, “end the war in Kashmir,” and “Modi is a butcher,” banners. The words terrorist and butcher have only been uttered by those part of the Pakistani group which none of the groups of protestors have backed up through their rhetoric.
A man wearing a traditional Kashmiri ‘karakuli’ cap and a long white coat, steps out of the car with two security guards accompanying him. Pakistani protesters huddle around him in excitement. He is Mohammed Fahiri, a well known affluent Kashmiri representative residing in Paris. When asked a few questions pertaining to his involvement in the protest, Fahiri grabs the mic, stands on the ledge of a wall and begins to preach. His excitement cannot be contained, “Modi is a butcher and a racist. I have come from Paris to let the British Government know that this man is a terrorist and should not be welcomed.” He hands the mic back and is helped by two of his bodyguards who then take him back to his car.
Standing away from the Kashmiri pack, with his delegation of Sikh protestors is Jas Singh – a member of the Sikh Federation. He looks perturbed yet calm, unlike the rest of the group who are waving black flags while angrily chanting anti-Modi slogans. At the forefront are six Sikh men holding a banner, telling David Cameron to ask Modi, “why Sikhs have not been given justice for the genocide of 1984.” Jas Singh says, “we want to fight against right wing fascism Hindutva since religious intolerance is a danger to everybody. For those minorities that have been oppressed, our British government needs to raise the issue of human rights and stand up to India in order to bring justice and sort those perpetrators out.” A member of the Federation wearing an orange turban and t-shirt with the Sikh ‘Khanda’ symbol says “we are here to demonstrate against the past and present human rights violations for Sikhs.
Hidden behind the barrage of Pakistani flags is a small crowd from the Nepalese community. A woman of Nepalese origin is clutching her child close to her, while shouting, “back off Modi.” Another angrily says: “India end the blockade.” Ironically the group is small yet seem to be the loudest of them all. Due to the political strife in Nepal, people are blaming the Modi government for imposing an unofficial blockade that is disrupting the import of supplies into their country. The BBC has reported that large amounts of fuel, food and other supplies are imported from India as well as 60 per cent of medical supplies.
This disruption has been due to a political problem raised by residents in the Southern plains of Nepal who have been protesting along the border. India has been accused of supporting the Madhesi community, to which the Indian government has denied all allegations and have said that their truck drivers are afraid to cross the border due to the unrest in Nepal.
Ayush Gurung is a young volunteer at the Britain Nepal Society, he says, “Children are unable to get to school because parents don’t have enough fuel to drop them off and pick them up. Highways are blocked because so many people are protesting. Modi needs to lift this blockade as it is affecting the economy of Nepal and our daily lives.”
It’s 3 pm and three black cars drive past the roaring crowd and disappears near Parliament Square. The momentum quickly picks up and the protesters rush to the front of the barricade set up by police officials to voice their anger. Some are trying to get a glimpse of the newly arrived prime minister by pushing in between clusters of people. Within seconds of the cars disappearing, the crowd begins to disperse leaving an empty Whitehall with anti-Modi slogans and flags left on the floor.
The next day at Wembley Stadium, the atmosphere is the polar opposite except for the cold and dreary weather. People of all ages are attending a reception in honour of Mr Modi. The venue is swarming with thousands of British Indians who are gathering together to celebrate the union of two nations. Despite the rain, Modi fans are hysterical and in good spirits; children are wearing the Indian flag and people are giving a sense of Modi mania.
There is a massive sense of excitement and the audience looks overjoyed. Deepika Tripathi is a young 25-year-old woman living in Southall. Wearing a long beige coat and drinking chai out of a plastic cup she is eagerly awaiting Modi’s arrival. Every few seconds she puts her cup down to rub her hands together trying to keep warm and her cheeks are blushing from the low temperature. She says: “it’s freezing out here but so worth it. I can’t wait to see him plus I’m a Gujarati and so is he. He represents my people and has done a lot for Gujarat which is fantastic.”
Sitting with their aunt a few chairs to the left are two young siblings; 10-year-old Girish Patel and his 8-year-old sister Sonia, who have the Indian tri-colour painted on their faces. They smile bashfully when asked if they like Modi and eventually nod their heads. Girish wants to shake the Indian prime minister’s hand, “I want him to shake my hand, it will make me really happy; if he does my parents will buy me ice cream.” Compared to yesterday, the stadium is full of positive Modi lovers exuding patriotism.
The huge pitch has been embellished with a nice cultural blend of two beautiful floral patterns that are symbols of the Indian traditional art-form known as ‘rangoli’ – a design made from coloured powder during festive occasions. The first one denotes the Indian flag in a petal-shaped design that is made of the three main colours; orange, green and white with the Ashoka Chakra symbol in the middle. The one next to it in the same shape represents Britain; with blue, red and white colours surrounding the Union flag.
Over sixty thousand people have now filled the stadium. Elevating the ambience further is the electrifying entertainment comprised of performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, energetic dancers and popular British Indian artists like Jay Sean, Navin Kundra and Sona Rele. People are singing and dancing along. The atmosphere is incredible. This is nothing short of a rock-star welcome for the Indian Prime Minister.
The irony of today is that there is the same amount of multiculturalism present as there was at the protests yesterday. Many members of the Sikh community are entering through the doors of Wembley stadium with sheer joy to witness this historical moment. Sitting a few seats below the press box are four men who seem to be of Pakistani origin as they are waving their national flag in the midst of loyal Modi fans. They look as though they’re enjoying the performance by Divya Patel – a classical folk dancer. Pawandeep Singh a volunteer from Harrow, owns an Indian clothing store in Southall. He directs people entering the event to their seats. “I know many people from my community aren’t happy with him but I have respect for how he is representing India at an international level.”
After waiting for three hours the crowd begins to get anxious as Mr. Modi and David Cameron are late. The colourful entertainment now seems like a broken record, as performers are starting to recycle their performances. The crowd begins to drown the singers out by chanting, “Modi, Modi, Modi.” Mr Chandru Gidoomal, a British national of Sindhi origin is one of the photographers, he says: “Modi is one of the best Prime Ministers India has seen. Look at how the prosperity of Gujarat increased once he became Chief Minister. Look at all these people who are waiting for him. If he isn’t a good prime minister, he wouldn’t have all these people cheering his name.”
As the cheers begin to get louder, a delighted Narendra Modi and David Cameron enter the stadium with his wife Samantha who is walking by his side in a scarlet sari.
Modi looks elated after the negative reception he received upon his arrival in the UK. He is wrapped up in a white shawl and underneath is sporting what is called a blue-black bandhgala jacket. The Indian diaspora leaps to its feet to welcome both prime ministers, after which David Cameron – wearing his usual navy blue suit – begins his speech with “Namaste Wembley.”
Cameron states that there will be £9 billion worth of deals signed between Indian and British companies allowing Britain to be a part of India’s economic boom. During his speech, Cameron praises Modi and says, “Let’s be partners in prosperity.”
Modi begins to address Wembley by honouring the “special relationship” between Britain and India, “this is a historic day, for a great partnership and you are the heartbeat of two great nations, two vibrant democracies and two wonderful people.” His warm welcome is greeted with a huge response from the crowd as they continue to shout his name.
The gravitas Modi is demonstrating in his public speaking is infectious as the crowd continuously showers him with appreciation by applauding his every word. He gives them hope by saying, “the dreams every Indian has dreamed, India is capable of fulfilling those dreams.” Although his opening is in English, Modi’s speech is mainly in Hindi – one of the many and widely spoken languages in India. However, those who are unable to understand the speech have been given a translating device.
The Indian prime minister touches upon a few key themes during the speech. He highlights how India takes pride in being a diverse nation by acknowledging efforts from different communities. How the contributions of the Sikh community -from which many members have been protesting against his arrival – have impacted India. Modi speaks about serious issues affecting his nation’s development such as global terror, and his efforts to solve India’s ongoing power deficiency problem by claiming that 18,000 villages will receive electricity within 1,000 days. “In the upcoming 1,000 days, I have taken the challenge to give these 18,000 villages electricity.” After each statement the crowd goes wild and applauds his charisma and powerful rhetoric. As a powerful authority figure being accused of corruption, his reputation precedes him.
He ends his speech by thanking the crowd, “I am grateful that you have come here and you have made this a historic day for me. You mean just as much to me as an Indian resident.” The crowd goes crazy. Flags are waving around, cameras are flashing as people whistle and scream his name. Despite being the leader of the world’s largest democracy, Modi leaves the stage and walks around the entire stadium continuously waving at his followers before disappearing. Vijay Chohan is a volunteer standing on the stairs applauding Modi’s final words, he says: “the event has been crazy, I don’t think I’ve seen this sort of reception before. After seeing him live you can truly see how powerful his aura is and I think India needs a prime minister like him.”
After five hours of enduring anticipation, enjoying the entertainment and witnessing a historical speech in the bitter cold, the ceremony’s grand finale ends with a spectacular fireworks display complementing the joyous festival of Diwali. It’s a dark November evening and there’s a euphoria in the air. A tired yet contented audience walks out of the arena in good spirits, leaving their Indian flags and pro-Modi slogans behind.