January  2003 
Year 9    No.83

India's Milosevic

Peace activists challenge corporate India’s courting of Narendra Modi


Some members of the Forum against Oppression of Women (FAOW) decided that we shouldn’t let the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s honeymoon with Narendra Modi pass unprotested. So at the last minute we decided we would try and intervene in some way.

About 14 of us (including some from the group Insaaniyat) gathered in the Oberoi hotel lobby as corporate highfliers streamed into the elevators to fill the conference room on the terrace above floor 40. I smuggled myself in fairly early when security was lax and the room half-empty. Some of the Forum activists also managed to infiltrate. But Modi was late by over an hour and hotel security working with CID managed to weed out everyone who seemed inappropriately dressed for the occasion, once the alert went out that there was a ‘group’ in the hotel. Had there been even just 7-8 of us in the conference room, the impact would of course have been more disruptive, but possibly also less successful.

The atmosphere was depressingly obsequious, with corporate chieftains close to genuflection–disgusting stuff. One had to sit through Modi’s string of promises and self-proclaimed achievements till the meeting was thrown open. (Capital has fled Gujarat since the violence and the aim of this ‘interactive session’ was to give Modi a chance to woo investors back. The slogan was ‘Gujarat Unlimited’.)  

After several rounds of the usual lobbying (privatisation, labour laws, etc.), Jamshed Godrej could no longer ignore my hand and said, "The gentleman in the brown shirt." I first introduced myself (as from Insaaniyat and the Oxford Corporate Governance Study; several of my interviewees were there and would have recognised me), then said:

"You cannot have a strong economy without justice, and you can’t have justice without the rule of law. By now there is considerable evidence that the Gujarat government actively connived in the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children in Gujarat last year." (Panic, consternation. Godrej interrupts, tries to shut me up, says, "This isn’t relevant to our meeting".) I respond, "Of course it’s relevant. How do you conduct business without the enforcement of contracts?" (Consternation mounts...Then the final blow.)  My question is to the CII - "Why is the CII lending credibility to political forces that have blood on their hands?"

There seemed at that point a sort of corporate roar, the backlash of a wounded lion, and the CID moved in rapidly to haul me away, when Modi told them (in Hindi) to stop. He wanted me there so he could reply. All I did hear him say was that every meeting of his was being ‘hijacked’ by people like me ‘raising the same issues’ and seeking publicity. I was in no mood to allow him the luxury of replying, especially since my question had been directed to the CII, so (divested of the mike by this stage and at the back of the hall) I simply shouted, twice and very clearly so it would resonate in their heads forever: "There is no justice in Gujarat!" 

Outside the room I was questioned briefly by the CID, then handed over to the police who took me and a whole group of Forum activists, who in the meantime had been detained in the basement of the Oberoi, to the nearest station where they kept us for about five hours. They were surprisingly gentle with us, and when Modi had finally left their South Bombay jurisdiction (after visiting the Ambanis at their home, late in the evening), we were released.

The women especially were thrilled that at least something had been done, otherwise everyone would have felt dejected and inordinately tired.

It is outrageous that a corporate body like the CII which claims to be in the forefront of modernisation in India should give credibility and support to a politician with Modi’s track record. It is a mere technicality that Modi and his ministers are not being tried in the Hague today before the International Criminal Court, the way Milosevic is being tried.

In India we have a tradition of not confronting painful events and experiences and deluding ourselves that we can grow without confronting our past. That is no more possible for societies than it is for individuals, and until we come out of this awful mindset we shall never be able to undermine the culture of impunity that allows politicians to commit crimes in the name of religion and get away with it.  

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