/ 4 July 2016

Why will India’s prime minister not get the rapturous welcome he receives elsewhere?

A supporter of India's Bharatiya Janata Party
Narendra Modi (Reuters)

On 8-9 July, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narenda Modi, will be visiting South Africa as the guest of President Zuma. The visit will be aimed at strengthening economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries.

Since our democratic elections in 1994, several high ranking Indian leaders such as former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, late president Abdul Kalam, former president Pratibha Patil and Ms Sonia Gandhi (president of the Indian National Congress), among other dignitaries, have visited our shores and had received warm and fraternal receptions.

For a number of reasons South Africans have readily welcomed leaders from India, the world’s largest democracy. The employment of indentured Indian labourers in the late 19th century on sugar cane plantations in Natal and their acceptance in later years as citizens in South Africa; Gandhi’s passive resistance campaigns against the discrimination of Indians in Natal and Transvaal in the early 20th century; the formation of the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses and their links with the Indian National Congress, and the religio-cultural bonds with people of India provide some explanation for the close affinity between South Africa and India.

In later years the ANC developed fraternal ties with the Indian National Congress, which continue to this day. India was the first country to break diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa. In more recent times our country has partnered with India and Brazil and later joined Brazil, Russia, India and China to form BRICS.

One would, therefore, expect that prime minister Modi’s visit to our country will be greeted with enthusiasm. One gets a sense though that a rapturous welcome might not actually materialise as has happened elsewhere in the world.

It could be that South Africans are still haunted by the ghosts of Gujerat. It may be that the shrill cries of the few thousands who were killed, maimed, burnt and raped during the 2002 pogrom may still ring in our ears.

The deaths, injuries, mayhem and destruction of property that followed the fateful burning on 27 February 2002 of the train in Godhra (Gujerat) will remain a bloody blot on India’s history.

The jury is still out as to whether or not the official organs of the Gujerat state were complicit in the attacks during that terrible period. The undeniable truth though is that India’s ruling elite cannot escape moral culpability for the gross violations of human rights and acts of genocide that occurred in those horrifying three weeks.

We have learnt from our own experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that national healing and social harmony can only begin with an acknowledgement of the atrocities committed and the rendering of a sincere apology to the victims and survivors of atrocities. That is the starting point for any meaningful process of reconciliation.

Prime minister Modi’s anticipated message of promoting economic growth and increasing bilateral trade ties between South Africa and India should be supported by us. We should welcome any initiative to increase foreign direct investment into our country. At a time when our economy is flagging and unemployment and inequality persists this is sorely needed. Any exports to India can only benefit South African businesses.

There can be no denying that Indian expatriates working and trading in our country will be receptive to a ‘diaspora message’ of their prime minister. However, Indian South Africans who are born and bred in our country have no aspirations to return to India. South Africa is our home and will remain so in future.

As part of the oppressed in South Africa under apartheid we had made common cause with fellow South Africans, particularly the African majority, in a joint struggle against race discrimination and for national self-determination, led by the ANC. Even today, we continue to make our contribution to building a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa. We make bold to say that our destiny is inextricably linked to the majority of South Africans, and not with India.

Like Mandela and Kathrada, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, led the march against colonial domination and conquest; actively supported and built the Non-Aligned Movement; advocated international peace and solidarity, and championed the cause of freedom and liberation of the oppressed.

These were progressive values that inspired millions across the globe, including oppressed South Africans living under apartheid. His vision was of a secular India based on religio-cultural tolerance and co-existence; a humane and peaceful world order; the scientific development of newly-independent, post-colonial states, and the betterment of the poor and oppressed throughout the world.

The truth is that Nehru’s expansive and humanistic vision, which we share, is at odds with an exclusivist ideology based on Hindu nationalism and an Indian state founded on a single, dominant religion. Clearly, the latter is at odds with the secular nature of our democratic constitution.

Through our participation in the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa we have come to accept that our destiny is tied to the future of fellow South Africans. Prime minister Modi’s tryst with President Zuma, important as it may be, will not change the fact that we are South Africans, living on the African continent.

Dr Ismail Vadi is a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and writes in his personal capacity