Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on arriving in Australia in the third week of May, was greeted by an Indian diaspora who had left India decades ago: they came out in numbers.
The Indian PM has tried to give the impression of being a near lovable soft-toy character. But Modi is one of India’s most accomplished sectarians, who has done more than any other leader since independence to repudiate the complex tapestry of Indian life.
It was that very same tapestry famously acknowledged by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as one that accepted all religions rather than one.
Now, forced conformism is the name of the game, and it is conformism with a generous, suffocating splash of Hinduism.
Others of different religious and cultural ilk need not bother: the “others” are many. Of India’s vast and growing population of 1.4 billion people, religious minorities account for about 20 percent – roughly 200 million Muslims and 28 million Christians.
During Modi’s tenure, they have become the subject of various regulations targeting the garments they don, the food they consume and their rites of worship.
Modi’s rule has also been accompanied by a rise of the perceived legitimacy of communal violence, much of it encouraged by the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Given the Indian leader’s long association with the RSS, their influence in policy is assured.
His India is also a country that had become less than safe to be a protestor, activist or a critical scribbler: journalists have been murdered in acts orchestrated by extreme offshoots of the Hindutva cult. Thousands of non-government groups, notably those with a human rights brief, have been deprived of funding.
In June last year, Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested for apparently offending Hindu sensibilities in a tweet posted in 2018.
It came soon after the arrest of activist Teesta Setalvad, who was charged with “criminal conspiracy, forgery and placing false evidence in court to frame innocent people” in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots which left more than 1000 people dead.
Setalvad’s keenness in pursuing the cause of Muslims in the wake of that brutal affair had obviously caught the attention of the authorities. Modi had been the Chief Minister of the state at the time, though he was subsequently cleared of any responsibility for the deadly events.
The dossier against the platitudes of Indian democracy continues to bulk. In a broader, structural sense, cronyism in the Indian state has become commonplace.
The Adani family members have ensconced themselves in the economic and political machinery. Questioning their standing is bound to land you in trouble, a point former Congress president Rahul Gandhi found in being sentenced and disqualified from the Lok Sabha.
With all that in mind, the spectacle of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese keeping company with Modi in Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena filled with adulating supporters was an unnecessary wallowing before Hindutva’s most prominent advocate.
In the biting words of the Sydney Morning Herald: “We might be on Australian soil, but Albo is once again a bit-player in Modi’s big narrative.”
According to the PM, Modi was “the boss”.
No other leader visiting Australia has received such treatment, but it is clear that Albanese felt comfortable being excruciatingly accommodating, given his own stadium experience in India.
He was content to let organisers such as Jay Shah and Rahul Jethi arrange the fireworks: both are directors of the Indian Australia Diaspora Foundation and members of a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chapter.
With all the fanfare, the stadium event was not all it seemed. One journalist noted that a venue with a seating capacity of 18,500 seemed less than packed. Vivek Astri, covering the visit for The Wire, noted “empty chairs scattered throughout the expansive venue”.
It struck him as rather odd, given the fact the tickets had been gratis, with registration noisily promoted through such platforms as WhatsApp months before. “Curiously, there seemed to be a veil of secrecy surrounding the ticket distribution process, lending an air of privacy to the entire event.”
The empty seats did nothing to discourage the organisers of the event to lend a note of exaggeration, one claiming that there were as many as 25,000 people who had arrived. Indian journalists covering the event complied with the formula.
The hosts of the usually light-hearted breakfast program on Channel Seven pressed Albanese about the event. Modi, inquired Sunrise presenter David Koch, had reduced press freedoms, discriminated against minorities and was “accused of watering down democracy. He sort of, he seems a bit of a tyrant?”
This, suggested Albanese, was not of interest to Australia. It was “not up to me to pass a comment on some of the internal politics in India which, as a democracy, has a range of views, which is a good thing.”
Modi was “popular with a majority of people”, Albanese said.
If only such standards were to apply to the governments of other states.
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]