Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been on a five-day trip to Africa that culminated in the 2018 summit of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping in Johannesburg. This is Modi’s second trip to South Africa and his first since President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed office.
Modi, a controversial leader back in India, understands the significance of this visit. It coincides with the 125th anniversary of the Pietermaritzburg incident that led to Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaign, where he mobilised South Africans and Indians to fight British rule. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of anti-apartheid icon and former president Nelson Mandela, who Modi honoured on his last visit in 2016 by wearing a Madiba shirt.
During a speech in Johannesburg at the time, Modi reminded the country of the contribution of Indians like Ahmed Mohamed Cachalia — a Gujarati Muslim who migrated to South Africa, went to jail with Gandhi, threw his lot with the struggle of African people against apartheid, and unified Indians to collectively fight against slavery and the larger struggle of Africans against white oppression.
As Modi now joins the Brics summit in Johannesburg, in a year as significant and symbolic as this, he is expected to make similar statements and talk the language of Mandela, Gandhi and Cachalia. This invoking of the proponents of peace and justice stands in sharp contradiction to the man who, as India’s prime minister, has been silent about the routine brutal attacks on minorities and the “othering” of Indian Muslims.
While he speaks the inclusive language of a statesman in South Africa and the other countries he has visited in the past four years as prime minister, Modi looks the other way when his ministers in the government support and endorse those who lynch Muslims on the streets and brutally assault those who protect the rights of minorities in India.
Modi himself wears the stigma of leading the state of Gujarat as its provincial head when 1 000 Muslims were killed in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002. He was grilled by various commissions of inquiry.
The Supreme Court of India, in one of its judgments on the Gujarat riots, likened his government’s actions to a modern-day Nero turning his cheek as innocent children and helpless women burned.
When Modi took over as India’s prime minister in 2014, he promised to protect and encourage the collective aspirations of 1.2-billion Indians, a figure he quotes in every parliamentary speech to demonstrate the strength of the country.
But his leadership has chosen to neglect the presence of a sizeable population of Muslims, Dalits and other lower castes, whose struggles and protests for their basic human rights are labelled unpatriotic and anti-national interest.
Modi enjoys populist appeal in the country, a fact reflected in the overwhelming number of votes he garnered in the 2014 general election. His mass appeal remains unimpaired because it has been constructed and manoeuvred around the tenets of majority appeasement and the endorsement of majoritarian rules of conduct.
Barely three weeks ago, one of Modi’s most important ministers in the Union Cabinet, Jayant Sinha, garlanded a group of Hindu men who lynched a Muslim man in Jharkhand. Modi, who has mastered the practice of dog-whistle politics and invokes peace and justice icons across the globe, is yet to condemn this act of one of his key ministers.
He is yet to send out a strong message to his party and his cadres that any attack on minorities in the country will not be tolerated.
In fact, the day Modi left for his Africa trip this week a Muslim man, Rakbar Khan, was brutally beaten and lynched to death on suspicion of being a cow trader in a state run by the prime minister’s party.
A leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party, called these lynchings a logical conclusion if Muslims were to continue eating beef.
This statement came this week when Modi, at a function in Uganda, promised to build a Gandhi memorial centre in the country to promote Indian culture and its legacy of peace and inclusiveness.
In India, the slaughter of cows is banned in several states and the ban on the consumption of beef and cow trading has been used as an excuse for the majority in India to inflict its wrath on minorities, with an average of one lynching a month.
The day Khan was lynched and left to die for allegedly selling cows, Modi was gifting two hundred cows to Rwanda as a part of a goodwill gesture. The irony of this gesture was seemingly lost on the Rwandans.
Whether it was visiting the Kigali genocide memorial, which bears testimony to a textbook case of virtually an entire community being annihilated, or promising to build a Gandhi memorial centre in Uganda, each one of these attempts at statesmanship reeks of a public façade that reveals its true colours back home, curious to attempt its own apartheid experiment.
If Modi truly respects Mandela and Gandhi, and believes in the sentiment of peace and justice, he could return to India and repeat in his home country the story of Ahmed Mohamed Cachalia and Ismail Cachalia, who were, in Mahatma Gandhi’s words, courageous fighters, proud Muslims who became a wall against apartheid in South Africa and fought the freedom struggle later in India.
India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, with an economy that is raring to enter the fast lane and with professionals occupying envied global positions. But it is also a country whose leaders are keen to discard its moral compass and adopt the same populist principles practised by strongmen across the globe.
An attempt is being made to question and attack the legacy of Gandhi in a country whose struggle to maintain its inclusive and just character has been a source of inspiration for global powers. South Africa would know.
Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and writer