Narendra Modi arrived in London for a three-day visit, the first by an Indian prime minister for more than a decade. The government hopes it will help build new economic partnerships in Asia but so far the visit has got a mixed reception.
Words: Mariya Savova, Subeditor: Corey Armishaw
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India’s prime minister Narendra Modi received a warm welcome by David Cameron. The two politicians met for talks at No. 10 on Thursday afternoon, before holding a joint press conference at the Foreign Office.
At the conference the UK prime minister announced that he and Modi will sign deals between British and Indian firms worth more than £9 billion. He also said that both countries would work together on issues such as defence, finance, nuclear power and climate change, the BBC reported.
Modi’s arrival in London represents a surprising turnaround. In 2002 anti-Muslim riots in India’s Gujarat state escalated and thousands were killed by Hindu mobs. Modi, who was state governor at the time, was accused of ordering the police not to intervene. As a result he was banned from the UK, US, and several European countries until 2012.
In contrast to the government’s warm reception, Modi was greeted by hundreds of protesters outside 10 Downing Street. At 12pm on Thursday several groups representing Sikh, Gujarati, Tamil, Nepali, Kashmiri and women’s groups gathered in Whitehall and shouted anti-Modi slogans.
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The crowd slowly made its way to Parliament Square chanting “Back off Modi”, “Go back”, “Modi go home”.
Even though things in India are quite unsettled at the moment and Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party just lost a regional election, most Indians abroad tend to support him, due to his government giving policy priorities to economy. However, not all British Indians are cheering for him.
Neela Kari, a representative from South Asia Solidarity Group told Voice of London: “I’m absolutely appalled by the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. We want to bring Modi to justice.”
Thursday’s rally was organised by the Awaaz Network, a group of organisations and individuals, which claims that it works to “monitor and combat religious hatred in South Asia and the UK”. In a statement, released as part of the protest, the organisers accused the Indian prime minister for unleashing “a violent authoritarian agenda that seeks to undermine India’s democratic and secular fabric.”
On Remembrance Sunday, the Awaaz Network even projected a picture of Modi wielding a sword in front of a swastika on to the Houses of Parliament. The “Modi not welcome” projection stayed up right next to the government’s Remembrance Day tribute on Big Ben for almost eight minutes.
Ahead of Modi’s visit to London, hundreds of writers also urged David Cameron to address the “rising climate of fear” in India during his meeting with the Indian prime minister. PEN International published an open letter to Cameron signed by 200 writers, in which the authors ask Cameron to discuss with Modi the current state of freedom of expression in India as well as the “growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism”.
UK academics researching development in India also expressed their concerns about Narendra Modi. In a letter, published in The Guardian, they called for “the human rights abuses on his [Modi’s] watch to be questioned in the public domain”.
Over the last few months there has been an ongoing debate about Modi’s leadership in India. Since he came to power last year, it is alleged that minorities and women in the country have been subject to rising intolerance and intimidation while academic and cultural freedoms have been limited.
Furthermore, Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has pushed to pass laws banning beef in a number of states, causing unrest among other religious groups in India. In September a Muslim man was killed by a Hindu mob after rumours were spread that he was eating beef. More similar cases have come to light ever since. The Indian prime minister failed to condemn the violent attacks clearly, for which he received severe criticism. Renowned Indian writers, scientists, artists, filmmakers and intellectuals even launched a series of protests against what they claim is a “climate of intolerance”.
At his speech at the House of Commons on Thursday, however, Modi said that “the wind of change” could be sensed in India. “Inspired by Gandhi, the change has begun with us – the way the government works. There is transparency and accountability in governance. There is boldness and speed in decisions,” the Indian prime minister told MPs and peers.
Although many are concerned about the state of affairs in India under Modi’s government, thousands of Britain’s Indian-origin community are preparing to roll out the red carpet for the prime minister. Today, Modi is expected to address a crowd of about 60,000 people at Wembley Stadium, shortly after meeting The Queen at Buckingham Palace.
A spokeswoman for the UK Welcomes Modi organisation told the BBC: “Of all the world leaders who have visited Britain, only Nelson Mandela and the Pope have addressed bigger public gatherings than Narendra Modi’s rally at Wembley.”
During his world tour, Modi has attracted tens of thousands of peoples at famous venues, such as New York’s Madison Square Garden and Dubai’s Cricket Stadium. The rally at Wembley, however, is likely to be the biggest and most spectacular yet, as it is just a couple of days after the Hindu religious festival of Diwali. The event will be a celebration of Indian identity and culture, featuring some of the very best British Indian artists.
The anti-Modi demonstration in pictures
Photos: Mariya Savova