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Published on September 20th, 2013 | by Liam Anderson
Image ©

Narendra Modi at the Bharatiya Janata Party Public Meeting in Pune on 14 July 2013. By Narendra Modi (Flickr).

The BJP’s Controversial Indian PM candidate: Modi and Minority Rights

Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister for the Indian state of Gujarat since 2001, was announced last Friday as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – India’s second largest party – and National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate for the upcoming 2014 Lok Sabha general elections.

While Modi is often perceived as competent with economic policy, a strong public speaker, and hard-working, he is a controversial figure due to his apparent antipathy towards Gujarat’s Muslim minority, especially during the 2002 violence.

He has significantly risen within the BJP since the 1990s, although not without disagreement. Significant support is derived from his links to, and strong ties with, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in the 1920s with the clear objective of making India a Hindu nation. Although, he is seen as differing from the RSS’ inclinations to a more ‘swadeshi’, nationalist-oriented, globalization-sceptic approach to the economy, towards small government.

Modi may be able to draw votes, particularly from young, urban middle classes, although his controversial past may, conversely, make it more complicated for the BJP to form certain coalitions, now more or less essential to form a government in India.

Gujarat: history of communal violence

Since 1995 the BJP has won state elections in Gujarat, a state where over 90% of the population is Hindu and around 7% are Muslim, respectively above and below the national average. There is a history of communal tension in Gujarat, which was heavily affected by the terrible violence at Partition. Tensions across India have fluctuated over time and vary by region and locality, from high levels of integration to strong mistrust.

In 2002 this tension exploded into bloody violence, with seemingly organized armed mobs targeting the Muslim minority. The violence was sparked by reports of the Godhra attack on 27 Feb 2002, in which almost 60 people, mostly Hindus, died when a train was attacked and burned by a mob, mostly Muslim. While the causes of the fire were not conclusively ascertained, including by the Nanavati-Mehta Commission, it is widely believed to have been arson, and 31 were later convicted for the attack. The Hindu pilgrims/ activists were returning from Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where they supported a campaign led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP) to construct a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site, which is claimed to be Ram’s birthplace, of a sixteenth century mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992; this itself led to serious riots and many deaths at the time. The Ayodhya campaign is a symbol of Hindu-Muslim communal tensions and provides an image of ‘competition’ for Indian land to which communities claim to have a religious connection or ‘right’; this serves extremist rhetoric aiming to argue that India must be dominated by Hindus in order to protect their identity, and assert claims to inseparably Hindu lands.

Following the Godhra attack, several days of anti-Muslim violence swept across many parts of Gujarat, resulting in a reported 1044 dead (790 Muslims and 254 Hindus), 2,500 injured, 223 missing, and many thousands displaced, although other estimates go significantly higher. In many cases it descended into pogroms, in which the security services, under the direction of the BJP state government headed by Modi, were accused of taking insufficient action to counter the violence or even being complicit in it, for example at the Naroda Patiya massacre. Opposition parties and parts of the media accused his government of even condoning the violence, and it met heavy criticism from human rights groups.

Following the violence, national coalition partners of the BJP, including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP), were among those calling for Modi’s resignation. Following his subsequent resignation and the State Assembly’s dissolution, Modi led the BJP campaign in the following elections, winning a majority of seats; he is accused of using anti-Muslim rhetoric in this campaign. Further, former colleagues have been accused of, and sentenced for, taking active roles in communal violence.

There is often a cyclical nature to communal violence, where the perceived violence and aggressive rhetoric of one group re-/generates mistrust and defensive paranoia in the other, and vice versa. Indeed, there are indications that later attacks, including the 2002 Akshardham Temple terrorist attacks and the 2008 Ahmedabad bomb blasts, were partly motivated by ‘revenge’ for the anti-Muslim nature of the 2002 pogroms. The alleged complicity in the 2002 violence, and apparent antipathy towards the fate of Gujarat’s Muslims, of Modi’s government implicates it and him as factors in this cycle, rather than credible solutions to it.

Investigations, reactions and gambles

In April 2009, the Supreme Court of India appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to inquire into the Modi-led Gujarat government’s role in the communal violence, which stated that they did not find evidence of him wilfully allowing violence. This has, though, been contentious, with investigations into the violence having reportedly been slow and incomplete, and suffering from allegations of suppressed evidence. While Modi was cleared by the SIT investigation, he at least bears indirect responsibility as the head of a state government and security services which made a painfully slow, and allegedly biased, response to violence; indeed an effective response only appeared to begin with the involvement of the federal government.

There is of course a moral imperative to fully investigate the violence, combat impunity, and help the victims; many have not been properly compensated, others who lost homes remain in ghettos, and Modi’s government has shown little to no remorse.

The 2002 violence triggered international reactions, for example the USA denied Modi a VISA, and the UK refused to deal with him after 2002 until 2012, and the EU until 2013. Western states do now appear more interested in developing ties with Modi, presumably due to his increased national importance and the possibility of him becoming prime minister, along with their interest in benefiting from ties with India’s huge economy. This convenient amnesia is somewhat predictable in the world of realist international relations; while international pressure for accountability could be useful, though, this must ultimately be strengthened from within India.

Modi has since shifted rhetorical emphasis from Hindutva – cultural/ Hindu nationalist – politics to economic development. The 2002 violence and Modi may have been a factor in the BJP’s 2004 electoral defeat. He recently tried to improve his image among Gujarat’s Muslim communities by undertaking several fasts in various locations, but they do not appear to have impressed many. The BJP has strong elements in its history of conservative Hindu nationalism which have often alienated minorities; in recent years it has tried to reach out to religious minorities, particularly Muslims, as has Modi apparently. However, his links to the 2002 violence can only hamper this. With his controversial past, Modi’s appointment as candidate can be seen as a political ‘gamble’ by the BJP, hoping he will attract more voters than he will turn away. Such a gamble, though, does of course risk further ‘communalizing’ Indian politics.

Minorities and government

The 2002 Gujarat pogroms, and related acts of violence before and after, are a terrible reminder of the dangers of aggressive communalism. These painful memories can only undermine the image of India and the Indian state apparatus, particularly in Gujarat, as a representative, secular democracy in the eyes of Muslims, and probably India’s many other minorities. The numerous credible accusations of the complicity of Modi and his government at the time surely cannot make him a suitable prime ministerial candidate.

His appointment can do nothing to help rifts between the BJP and India’s minorities, and if he were elected as prime minister there may be a risk that this same identity-based polarization between religious minorities and the BJP is transferred to the Indian government itself. Indeed, Amartya Sen has stated that he does not want Modi as prime minister as he lacks ‘secular credentials’ and says he has ‘not done enough to make minorities feel safe’.

Right man for the economy, or minority rights?

Modi is argued by some to be the right man for the economy. However, it is debatable that this is acceptable if he is the wrong man for minority rights, the unbiased rule of law, and secularism. Further, while Gujarat’s economy is reported to have grown under Modi, it has seemingly been a polarizing growth; this is added to the fact that the approach for Gujarat state cannot necessarily be used for the huge, diverse federation as a whole.

Semi-arid Gujarat has experienced improved irrigation, increased agricultural production, significantly higher output of cotton, and a reformed supply of electricity to agricultural areas. However, this development has not been consistent across different indicators or segments of the population; while economic statistics may reflect a “Vibrant Gujarat” and overall literacy and health indicators may have risen, it appears to be the urban middle classes which have benefited, while rural and lower caste and class Gujaratis have not, with the number of families under the poverty line actually increasing. It has been argued that the Gujarati population actually became more polarized under Modi’s BJP government, by ethno-religious community, socioeconomic class, and urban-rural lines.

Increased polarization is the last thing that India needs, a country which at times appears to be a fragile mosaic of a nation, ever vulnerable to communal tensions exploding. With such a history, how can Modi represent the diverse, inclusive democracy that India aspires to be? Much more needs to be done to address the wrongs of past violence, fight impunity and bias, establish accountability, and break the cycle of communal tensions, before Modi could do so, and avoid simply representing aggressive Hindu nationalism to India’s many minorities.

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About the Author

Liam Anderson

Liam holds a Master's degree in International Affairs: International Security from Sciences Po. His interests include post-conflict stability, state development, and group identity.

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