Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Monday before leaving the United States after a seven-day trip that focused primarily on strengthening commercial ties between the U.S. and India. More than 100 academics in the U.S. wrote a letter protesting Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, warning tech giants of the dangers of doing business with a government that has “demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.” Before his election, Modi had been barred from the United States for many years over his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 dead in Gujarat, where he was chief minister. He has never apologized for or explained his actions at the time. We speak with Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad, who signed the protest letter, and Ruth Manorama, a Dalit activist from India who won the Right Livelihood Award in 2006.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also addressed the U.N. General Assembly, before leaving the U.S. after a seven-day trip that focused primarily on strengthening commercial ties between the U.S. and India. Modi met several high-profile leaders from the world’s top tech companies in California over the weekend, including Apple’s Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Modi was the first Indian leader to visit the West Coast in more than 30 years. On Saturday, he addressed more than 350 business leaders, emphasizing the need for Internet literacy in India.
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: From creating infrastructure to services, from manufacture of products to human resources development, from support governments to enabling citizens and promoting digital literacy, Digital India is a vast cyberworld of opportunities for you. The task is huge, the challenges are many. But we also know that we will not reach new destination without taking new roads.
AMY GOODMAN: More than 100 academics in the United States have written a letter protesting Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, warning tech giants of dangers of doing business with a government that has, quote, “demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions,” unquote. On Sunday night, Prime Minister Modi spoke before a crowd of 18,500 people in San Jose. Three thousand people reportedly protested outside the venue, drawing attention to Modi’s record on human rights. Before his election, Modi was barred from the United States for many years over his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left more than a thousand people dead. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, where the killings occurred. He has never apologized for or explained his actions at the time.
Still with us, Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. We are also joined by Ruth Manorama. She is a Dalit activist from India who also works on women’s rights. In 2006, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for her, quote, “commitment over decades to achieving equality for Dalit women, building effective and committed women’s organizations and working for their rights at national and international levels.”
Welcome, Ruth Manorama, to Democracy Now!
RUTH MANORAMA: Thank you very much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.
RUTH MANORAMA: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Vijay Prashad, thank you for staying with us. As you follow the U.N., Professor Prashad, Modi just spoke. Talk about the significance of what he said and who he is.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Narendra Modi is very much like the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in that he wants to be the strong man of his country, doesn’t want to get himself tied down with the minutiae of government, which is why he has been essentially on the road for most of his prime ministership. He has been traveling in East Asia to Australia. This is his second major trip to the United States. He has been to China. And everywhere he goes, he sort of tries to stand above the fray.
This is very smart politics, because meanwhile in India his Cabinet is running a very different kind of government. It has been pushing against civil libertarians. It has been trying to stuff its own very narrow agenda kind of people into the various cultural and educational institutions. It’s been going after people who are trying to raise issues of Modi’s tenure in Gujarat during the pogrom of 2002, particularly the campaigner Teesta Setalvad. So, while his government has been vicious and, you know, has been, in a sense, trying to shut down dissent, Mr. Modi has given himself an air of royalty. He comes to these very large events. He has a certain charisma. And at the U.N., as well, you know, he talks as if he is the most beloved person on Earth. Obviously, he makes, you know, a great impact. People are excited to see an Indian prime minister with a certain kind of charisma. But this is a rather meaning—this is very misleading, because at the same time, as I said, a very different agenda is being pursued by his government inside India.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Ruth Manorama, you are here, as well, at the United Nations. The significance of this trip that the prime minister has taken, not only addressing the United Nations, but also taking this seven-day trip where he addressed tech leaders in California? Explain your view of Modi in India.
RUTH MANORAMA: Modi, our prime minister, comes from Gujarat. That talks about a lot. There is severe human rights violation has been done in 2002 against Muslim minorities. And he gets elected and come over there.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain for people in the United States. I don’t think they’re very familiar with the massacres of 2002 in Gujarat.
RUTH MANORAMA: Yes, yes. Being a women’s rights activist, I’ve been called by many groups, particularly the nongovernmental organization, to study particularly the situation what happened to the Muslim women in Gujarat—terrible things. It’s a terrible genocide on these people has occurred, butchering them, burning them, putting the children into fire. And I have seen by myself 2,000 to 3,000 people have been murdered, you know, attacked by the Hindutva forces there. And it’s a serious human rights violation.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was Modi’s role?
RUTH MANORAMA: Modi, he was, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: He was the equivalent—
RUTH MANORAMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —of the governor of Gujarat at this time?
RUTH MANORAMA: No, he was the chief minister of—chief minister at that time. Like he said that, you know, “I don’t—I didn’t have any hands into that.” But he was very silent, and silent spectator on one side, and yet he encouraged people to do this violence, create this violence, create this massacre, create this pogrom. And, you know, people been not given social justice even today. Still people are living in fear. And some people said, “OK, OK, like, you know, since the BJP is ruling at the center, there’s no voice. Everything is all right.”
There are few human rights activists still pursuing this issue at the Supreme Court level, at the different courts level, and they’ve been called, you know, terrorists, the anti-nationals. People who are working for the human rights are named anti-nationals. I think it’s a very piteous situation. India is being a biggest democracy and a secular country. We view this as not in a—you know, in a good spirit. I think it goes against the spirit of democracy and secularism. That is the kind of conditions. The civil liberties of people are curbed. The CSOs, the NGOs, who are doing—or people’s movements, who are doing human rights work, are not viewed very friendly by the government. We are looked at as if, no, we are anti-nationals. So, the human rights situation, per se, is not in its glory. India is shining on one side, but on the other side, like there is a severe—you know, a severe curtailment of human rights is happening.
And I think, you know, this is what I would say about Mr. Modi’s government. The government is always very busy in preparing his foreign trips, when there are so much domestic problems, such as poverty, tech poverty, inequality, you know, that has been so much increased over the years. And, you know, they have assured a better governance, but I think that governance needs to be definitely improved within the context of human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Before you go, Professor Vijay Prashad, can you talk about Modi’s plan, Digital India, to get a billion more Indians on the Internet, and why you signed, co-signed, that letter by a hundred academics expressing concern that it’s a front line for mass surveillance?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, one of the things that Modi said when he sat with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, he said that India is a series of Ds, one of which is democracy, another of which is deregulation. One of the principal themes of this government has been to push for a business agenda in the name of the poor. I think that’s a very clever strategy they’ve used, but it’s also a very dangerous one. So, for instance, the Modi government has opened 170 million bank accounts for Indians who didn’t have bank accounts. But, of course, these bank accounts are empty. So you can open a bank account, but there’s no money in it. Inflation is running high in India. People joked, when he goes to Facebook headquarters, somebody should tell Modi to bring back a bag of onions when he returns to India, because onions have become basically priced out.
This pro-business agenda is very much in display in his Digital India idea. You know, he’s tied up with—you know, he sat down there with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has created a web portal called Internet.org, linked up with a major Indian multinational called Reliance. The idea is to get the poor with the ability to get onto the Internet, in the same way as the poor were merely given bank accounts. So they will have access to the Internet. The problem is that both Facebook and Reliance are constraining the kind of Internet that people are able to reach. In other words, the principle of net neutrality, which is that when you enter the Internet, you should be able to go anywhere you like, is being constrained by what Facebook and Reliance are producing in this phenomena called Internet.org. So, that’s one of the major problems with the Modi attempt to do deregulation and development in the name of the poor. It’s actually merely in the interest of the rich.
On the other side, there is no guarantee in India that there is no surveillance of the population through these mechanisms. You can give people various apps to access the Internet on their smartphone, but there’s no protection against surveillance. And that’s the main reason why I signed that letter, was I feel like it’s erroneous to believe Modi’s populist rhetoric that he’s doing these things for the poor, when the very protections that are necessary are not in place and where the interests of the poor are not necessarily to be served.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll continue with Ruth Manorama, talking about what Dalit activism is. What are Dalit women doing throughout India? A term no longer used, “untouchable,” replaced by that term “Dalit,” what does it mean? Stay with us.