/ 14 July 2016

Modi preaches peace in Durban while back home Indian troops open fire on mourners

Members of the Johannesburg Kashmiri solidarity group of South Africa protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Members of the Johannesburg Kashmiri solidarity group of South Africa protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It takes a special appreciation of irony to comprehend the events of the past weekend.

First: Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, on his landmark visit to Durban, followed in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, who made a journey to these parts more than 100 years ago.

Modi boarded a train to honour the journey Gandhi had embarked on in 1893 before being kicked off by police for being in a whites-only carriage. After disembarking in Pietermaritzburg, Modi went to Phoenix, about 20km north of Durban, to visit the Gandhi settlement where the mahatma lived and started his printing press.

If Modi’s trip to Gandhi’s home in South Africa sounds normal, it shouldn’t. Modi was raised in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu national- ist group that believes in India as a Hindu state. The RSS is known for its stirring polemic but also for stirring communal hatred.

The group was behind the movement to build a Hindu temple at the site of an ancient mosque in Ayodhya, which led to the 1992 riots. The RSS also reportedly distributed sweets when Gandhi was killed by an RSS devotee in 1948.

Second: The Gandhi museum in Phoenix is surrounded by a profusion of informal settlements in one of the country’s poorest districts. This is an area hit hard by HIV, teenage pregnancy, crime and unemployment.

The museum, behind its steel gates, is incongruent with its surroundings, though it is part of the epic but understated Inanda heritage route. The museum itself celebrates Gandhi, John Dube (the first president of the ANC) and Isaiah Mloyiswa Mdliwamafa Shembe, the founder of the Nazareth Baptist Church. Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in a school around the corner during the country’s first elections in 1994.

The story goes that Dube and Gandhi “met and spoke many times”, illuminating the extent of partnership and camaraderie among black and Indian leaders in South Africa at the time. But, according to “new” research, documented by historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, the pair had different goals and rarely met, perhaps not more than twice.

Moreover, their book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire, found that Gandhi was quite regressive about the local black population, even for his time. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, with this settlement Gandhi actually refined a superiority complex on the hill.

And so, here, one man was paying an ironic homage to the noble legacies of another who had his own string of contradictions.

Third: On Saturday, in the Himalayan region of Indian-administered Kashmir, tens of thousands, perhaps a few hundred thousand, took to the streets in the southern districts to mourn the killing of an anti-Indian rebel named Burhan Wani a day earlier. The 21-or 22-year-old, known for handling social media with the deftness of a Nieman fellow, was shot dead by army officers.

On Saturday, police and paramilitary officers opened fire on thousands of people who gathered to conduct funerals and protest his death. Nearly 30 (and counting) civilians were killed and hundreds of others were injured, some critically.

One young man fell into a river while being chased by troops. Protesters threw stones at the security forces, who opened fire with live rounds and fired birdshot as a form of crowd control. Nearly 100 people, mostly young people, are said to have lost their eyesight as a result.

As if there could be any more remarkable irony, it was Ela Gandhi, the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, who took Modi around the ashram in Phoenix, showing him where Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha (or insistence on truth through nonviolence) was conceived and sown.

When Modi was done, he placed his palms together, bade farewell and took the next flight out to Tanzania, ready to woo anew.

Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and the co-founder of the Daily Vox