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Narendra Damodardas Modi

Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters, 2018 (Note: this photo was added after publication)

Some people call him the 'butcher of Gujarat'. To others he's India's homegrown Hitler. Whatever the label, there is little dispute that Narendra Damodardas Modi, the hate-mongering Chief Minister of Gujarat, was deeply implicated in the murder of hundreds of Muslims in his home state last year.

India is no stranger to communal violence: the subcontinent has seen its share of religious riots and horrendous brutality. But not planned cold-blooded genocide on this scale.

It started on 27 February 2002 when a train carrying pilgrims to Ayodhya, birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, stopped at the station in the small city of Godhra. There had been sporadic fighting between Hindus and Muslims in the town for several months, sparked by the refusal of militant Hindus to pay for food and drink bought from Muslim vendors. But this time the fighting got out of hand and quickly grew ugly. The train full of pilgrims was pillaged by Muslim men who set fire to two compartments, burning to death innocent Hindu women, children and old people. It was an unpardonable crime. But one punishable by law.

Instead a campaign of hate and provocative lies was launched by Hindu-controlled newspapers and distributed overnight to thousands of Hindu villages. The Modi Government then jumped into the fray with an unofficial call to arms. Hindu men were asked to 'avenge' the killings at Godhra. Armies of men swarmed the town's streets with knives, trishuls (tridents) and swords.

'Every action,' the Chief Minister reportedly said, quoting Isaac Newton, 'has an equal and opposite reaction.' The police were instructed not to interfere with marauding mobs during the long night of terror. Government ministers had a hotline to police control rooms. Desperate Muslims who phoned for help were told 'we have no orders to save you'. The few extraordinary police officers who defied orders were later reprimanded and transferred.

Women and young girls were raped and set aflame in front of their families. Men were slashed, then burnt alive. The Gujarat Government later estimated that nearly 1,000 Muslims were murdered in the attacks. The unofficial count was closer to 2,000. Practically every Muslim shop and business was burned to a cinder.

Less than a year after Narendra Modi masterminded the murderous attack in Godhra the electorate voted him back to power in a sweeping victory. In fundamentalist circles there was jubilation; in the rest of the country, deepest gloom.

The 53-year-old politician grew up in Vadnagar, a poor backwater in north Gujarat. After obtaining a masters degree in political science, he migrated to Ahmedabad and joined the Hindu nationalist movement, soon plunging into active politics. He took charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat in October 2001, thanks mostly to the lacklustre leadership of then Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. He hasn't looked back.

On the election trail he was at his crude best, combining gutter politics with a tirade of hate. He cast himself as the only one who could prevent Muslim wrath from boomeranging on the state. Asked what could be done for the Muslims rendered penniless by last year's orgy of violence, he jeered: 'What should we do? Run relief camps for them?'

Lately, Modi's boosters have begun to promote him as a future Prime Minister - a bearded führer come to lift the country to new heights. Narendra Modi is happy to co-operate; he plays to the gallery. Riding on his recent electoral victory, he boasts: 'I sway the masses, the masses don't sway me.' At the same time he cultivates a 'Mr Simplicity' pose. He always dresses in homespun kurtas and claims his favourite food is khichdi (a dal rice mixture) - simple peasant fare. Modi lives an austere life, in a spartan bungalow. There is no hint of corruption or bribe taking. He touches the feet of his elders and the powerful, such as the Prime Minister, in the deeply traditional, old-fashioned way. His public image is of a simple bachelor with a monk-like devotion to his work. (His ex-wife currently works as a schoolteacher in a poor Muslim area close to Ahmedabad, something he's not keen to publicize.)

Mr Simplicity wears designer spectacles and is a self-confessed gizmo freak. 'One of the first users of email in India,' he admits. During the recent election he systematically compiled his own database and fed it into an IBM laptop. The same painstaking planning was evident in the Gujarat carnage. Mobs moved from one house to another with computer printouts of voter lists, easily identifying the Muslims who had to be eliminated. New technology in action.

The Indian media has not been kind to Modi. His role in the rampage last year was widely reported. After the bloodbath he was featured on the front page of virtually every newspaper as the mastermind of the pogrom. But in spite of detailed evidence indicting Modi and his cronies there have been no legal proceedings against him inside the country. British Muslims have filed an appeal to extradite and try him in The Hague. But that's it. It would be better by far for India's leaders to clamp down immediately on this demented race-warrior - before his lunacy spreads.

New Internationalist issue 356 magazine cover This article is from the May 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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