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Is Canada's warm welcome what Narendra Modi deserves?

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When Stephen Harper hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Canada this week, they will be greeted both with adoring fans and with protests. Modi, an extremist Hindu nationalist, has support within a section of Canadian Indians. But his past comes back to haunt him. A human rights organization called Sikhs for Justice has appealed to the Canadian government to prosecute Modi for his alleged role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, a western state of India.

Until a year ago, Modi was denied a visa to visit the U.S. because of “severe violations of religious freedom.” While Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he was accused of “criminal conspiracy” in a pogrom against Muslims in 2002 in which more than 1,000 were killed, and over 100,000 were made refugees. Modi rose from the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist nationalist organization that was briefly banned in India after one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Extremist Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with Modi’s party, collectively called the Sangh Parivar, allegedly played a key role in the planned attacks.

In a petition to Justice Minister Peter McKay, Sikhs for Justice have asked that Modi be charged for counselling genocide and inflicting torture under Canadian law, based on the evidence they provided. The letter points to relevant sections of the Canadian Criminal Code and the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act that allow for the prosecution of a foreign leader in Canada. In India, Zakia Jafri, the wife of Ehsan Jafri, a Member of Parliament who was brutally murdered during the Gujarat pogrom, filed a case of “criminal conspiracy” against Modi and 58 other political and government figures. Jafri’s appeal against Modi’s acquittal is pending in the Gujarat high court. Jafri’s family and human rights groups supporting her case have faced intense harassment from the Modi government.

Since corporate India championed Modi, and funded his election campaign, his image in the West has undergone a makeover. He is being wooed by world leaders eager to cash in on business in India, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. After his election victory, one of Modi’s first state visits was to the U.S. Soon after, U.S. President Barack Obama visited India and got Modi to sign a nuclear deal in which the Indian government and public sector agreed to take on the liability for any accident in nuclear power plants operated by American companies in India.

Corporate India may try hard to re-invent his image, but the direction the country is going under Modi’s rule tells another story. With Modi in power, his emboldened brotherhood in the Sangh Parivar has intensified the targeting of minorities — Christians, Muslims, indigenous tribes and lower castes. Women are kidnapped for marrying Muslim or Christian men as part of the “love jihad” campaign. Churches are being attacked; a nun was raped. But Modi pretends that the everyday violence and intolerance doesn’t exist. He is busy travelling the world, signing business deals and meeting his diaspora supporters.

In many ways, Harper and Modi are natural allies, both conservatives with strong corporate backing. Just like Harper has been using Islamophobia to stir up fear and insecurity, Modi uses anti-Muslim rhetoric during his election campaigns, too, but violent consequences often follow his words. Modi has diluted already weak environmental laws in India to favour business, just like Harper pushed through the omnibus Bill C-45 that weakened environmental regulations to make way for major development projects.

Until a year ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to visit the U.S. because of “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Both leaders have used strategies to subvert democratic processes. The Harper government has been criticized for being autocratic and overriding the parliamentary process. Recently, when Modi’s proposal to dilute land acquisition laws was held up in Parliament, he got the president of India to pass an ordinance to enact a law that strengthens the rights of government and companies to acquire land and impairs the rights of ordinary people. Modi’s government has frozen the accounts of Greenpeace India, in an attempt to stop their efforts at environmental protection. Harper has used similar strategies to stifle dissent against his policies to expand Canada’s environmentally destructive oilsands.

It would be wishful thinking to imagine a different Canada taking a stand for human rights based on Canadian values. Despite the protests, it is unlikely that any action will be taken against Modi for his misdeeds. Modi is a state guest. It is business as usual.

Dionne Bunsha is a journalist and author of the book Scarred: Experiments with Violence in Gujarat, a non-fiction narrative of the aftermath of extremist Hindu violence against Muslims in Gujarat, India.

This piece was originally published in The Toronto Star, and is reprinted here with permission.


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