Ahmedabad: He was accused of being a “modern-day Nero” who sat back while thousands of Muslims were butchered, but Narendra Modi has not only survived as chief minister of Gujarat, he has prospered.
Middle-class Hindus in Gujarat have put behind them the communal riots of 2002, as they grow richer in a state that has become a model of economic development and attracted investment from India’s biggest industrialists, analysts say.
“The middle-class attitude is shorn of any moral compunction when it comes to the riots,” said Gagan Sethi, head of the Centre for Social Justice, a local group fighting for the riot-affected. “Their apathy has only emboldened Modi.”
Human rights groups say some 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were beaten or burnt to death in the state five years ago, although officials put the toll at about 1,000. The riots erupted after a fire broke out on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims on 27 February 2002, killing 59 people.
The Supreme Court compared Modi to Roman emperor Nero, remembered in popular legend as playing his lyre while Rome burned. Modi’s government looked elsewhere while innocent people were burning and was probably deliberating how to protect the killers, it said in a 2004 judgement.
The United States revoked a visa for Modi the following year, on the grounds that he was responsible for severeviolations of religious freedom. But that has not deterred some of India’s leading industrialists from praising him. “Industry doesn’t concern itself with questions of political morality or ethics or even justice,” said Zoya Hasan, an academician and member of the National Commission on Minorities.
Five years after the riots, and despite a national outcry, little has been done to catch the culprits, rights groups say, leaving Muslims in Gujarat disillusioned, alienated and afraid.
Modi has put himself forward as a champion of right-wing economics, a popular platform among a people famous throughout India for their business acumen, not least in the diamond trade.
Under his leadership, Gujarat has become one of India’s fastest-growing states, with some of its best infrastructure. His government has turned around several loss-making state-run firms and boasts impressive rates of job creation.
Industry says it supports Modi because he helps them. “Gujarat today is about good governance, pro-active bureaucracy, solid infrastructure,” said Pankaj R. Patel, head of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There is political will to prosper economically.”
All this means little for the state’s 52 lakh Muslims, virtually relegated to second-class citizenship, many of whom pursue either menial jobs or small businesses from their ghettos. Modi’s success feeds off a history of communal tension in a state which was invaded and plundered over the centuries, mostly by Muslims.
“In Modi, middle-class Gujaratis found a hero who first successfully projected Muslims as the villains and then assured them protection from that community,” Sethi said.
In the streets of Ahmedabad, many Hindus say their chief minister has done them proud. “Modiji says today we can go anywhere with our heads held high and we don’t need to worry about Muslims. It is true,” said Hitenbhai Patel, an Ahmedabad shop owner.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, to which Modi belongs, has stood by him since the 2002 riots, even though its leaders have described the violence as a stain on the country’s image. Modi has repeatedly said his only consideration is to promote economic growth without favouring one community over another.