Since becoming prime minister of the world’s largest democracy in May 2014, Modi and his extremist Hindu nationalist BJP party have been carrying out policies and making statements that bear striking similarities to — but precede — those of Donald Trump.
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Narendra Modi Rises to Power
Like Trump, Modi is a highly polarizing figure with a checkered and controversial history. Neither emerged from a vacuum. Elected chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2001, Modi’s main claim to fame prior to becoming prime minister was his role in and response to anti-Muslim riots that took place in the state in 2002.
On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set alight in the state, killing 58 people. Reports that the fire had been started by members of the state’s Muslim minority led to months of a systematic anti-Muslim pogrom, which saw over 2,000 people killed and more than 200,000 others displaced. A brutal extermination campaign was carried out with mass rapes, children burned alive and widespread destruction.
A court-appointed investigation team cleared Modi of complicity but many consider him responsible. Internationally, he was subject to a decade-long travel ban in Europe and is the only foreign official denied a visa to the US on the grounds that he is “responsible for severe violations of religious freedom;” the US travel ban was lifted shortly after he became prime minister.
Since emerging on the broader political scene in 2012, Modi and his supporters have tried to put the past behind them. This is not easily done when over 50,000 people, mainly Muslims, remain displaced 15 years on. Justice has been slow and interrupted for victims, and witnesses, judges and human rights activists have been harassed, even receiving death threats.
Modi has used virulent anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric to fuel his rise to power and fame and underline his alleged “economic miracle” in Gujarat: essentially unbridled neoliberalism, favoring corporations at the expense of the environment, human rights and local and indigenous peoples. As prime minister, he has brought this to the international stage in one of the world’s largest and most populous states.
Echoes of Discrimination in the US
In the US, Donald Trump threatened to jail his election rival Hillary Clinton, while in India, opposition Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal spent the 2014 inauguration in prison. Members of Modi’s party jailed for their involvement in the 2002 riots, on the other hand, have been released on bail.
Much of the resistance against Modi’s fascist policies and the vanguard of the protection of freedom of speech has come from university campuses and intellectuals. Shortly after Modi became prime minister, Delhi University lecturer Professor G. N. Saibaba was jailed for alleged Maoist links and denied adequate medical care for his post-polio medical condition, resulting in additional ailments and the spread of his paralysis. In 2016, student protests broke out in Delhi and were accompanied by the arrest of student leaders.
If the University of California Berkeley protests of February 2017 offer a taste of what is to come as liberal and left-wing students increasingly clash with fascist elements in the US, ongoing protests in Delhi pitting students against extremist right-wing groups linked to the government demonstrate how solidarity can be built up in the longer run.
Women and minorities are targets in both the US and India. In India, the two have been tied together through patriarchal Hindu extremist campaigns to “save women from themselves” by preventing Hindu women from having relationships with Muslim and Christian men and vice versa. The latest incarnation of this are so-called “Anti-Romeo Squads” — vigilante groups that purport to prevent sexual harassment but which many say are instead harassing interreligious couples — set up in a northern Indian state to coincide with local elections.
Attacks on religious minorities have surged, with impunity. With the ruling party backed by paramilitary and extremist groups, minorities are left unprotected from attacks the authorities ignore or inflame. In 2015, the police reacted violently, killing Sikhs peacefully protesting the desecration of holy texts. In the same year, a village mob lynched a Muslim man on the mere rumor that he had allegedly eaten beef. Discrimination in everyday life, such as in employment and housing, has also increased.
As in the US, inflammatory rhetoric by the ruling classes backed by the media, law enforcement and official policy has emboldened the right wing. Minorities are fighting back. Following the lynching of a Dalit family in Gujarat in 2016 for skinning a dead cow, Dalits in the state organized a huge protest march, met with violence by the police and Hindu extremists, against the increasing wave of violence their community faces. Along the way, they touched base and walked with other discriminated religious minorities.
Given Trump’s vitriolic anti-Muslim speech, he has found favor with Hindu nationalists. Nonetheless, the racially-motivated murder of an Indian Hindu, with the killer allegedly shouting, “Go back to your country” should raise questions about the support given to Trump and similar rhetoric in India. Neither Trump nor Modi has spoken out on this murder.
In India, weeks after Modi became prime minister, a Hindu nationalist group killed a young IT worker on his way home for being a Muslim; the killers in this case boasted that “the first wicket has fallen,” in reference to the popular national sport of cricket.
Following Trump’s ban on some mainstream media outlets attending a press briefing, Indian media were quick to draw parallels with Narendra Modi’s disdain for the media and free speech, and his attempts to control them. As Indian troops blinded and wounded thousands of Kashmiris in the summer of 2016, the Kashmir Reader newspaper was physically shut down and Facebook removed posts, videos and accounts of those actively sharing information about what was going on in the region.
Although the fence dividing much of the India-Bangladesh border may make the latter state India’s Mexico, India’s blockade of Nepal in 2015-2016 put millions of children and vulnerable people at risk of starvation and death by preventing the entry of essential supplies to the country.
While Trump has his “Muslim ban,” since 2016, Modi’s government has been aiming to change India’s Citizenship Act along the lines of religion, posing a serious challenge to the country’s secular constitution by introducing provisions similar to Israel’s law of return for Jews, making India a homeland for all Hindus worldwide at the expense of religious minorities.
Global Resistance and Solidarity
It should not be forgotten that since 2014, Narendra Modi has visited the US four times, during which he has addressed crowds at Madison Square Garden and Silicon Valley. He has cemented strong relations with leaders and industry worldwide. The mainstream media has ensured much of what happens in India, particularly the violent conflicts in Kashmir and with Maoists in the Northeast, stays in India alone. Dissent and opposition are unpatriotic, anti-national and must be shut down. While wondering how Trump happened, the world has welcomed Narendra Modi with open arms for the past three years.
The similarities do not end there. If the US wants to see where the Trump era could lead, India offers a good idea, even though the fightback there has not been as organized or on such a large scale. The experiences of some must not be privileged above those of others; resistance to the growing tide of fascism can only be effective through international solidarity, and solidarity with those involved in similar struggles elsewhere.