Surreal scenes outside Modi visit

The Indian diaspora make up a diverse, contradictory and comically absurd group of protestors at this week’s Commonwealth meeting in London. Rahila Gupta takes note

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) concludes today in London and has been in the news for the very good reason that British Prime Minister Theresa May had initially refused to meet with the Caribbean heads of state to discuss the Windrush scandal. Those who had arrived in Britain as children from the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s had, in the recently ratcheted up climate of hostility against immigrants, found themselves jobless, homeless, unable to access health care and on the verge of being deported because they did not have a passport.

Less widely reported, however, was the intense interest that CHOGM aroused in the Indian diaspora because the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was due to attend. Both adoring and contemptuous crowds vied for space and the right to be heard outside Downing Street and in Parliament Square.  Although the issues at stake were serious, the resultant chaos was almost farcical.

South Asia Solidarity Group (SASG) organized a demo outside Downing Street on Wednesday to protest against a string of horrific sexual violence cases that has involved members of the ruling party, BJP, either as prime suspects as in the Unnao case or as defenders of the rapists, as in the tragic Asifa case – an 8-year-old Muslim child, who was abducted, raped and murdered. They were joined by the Indian Workers’ Association and CasteWatch UK.

Photo: Rashmi Varma

As a member of Southall Black Sisters, I went along to attend the SASG protest, only to find that our demonstration was periodically interrupted by a group of 50 Azad Kashmir (pro-Pakistan, religious fundamentalists) supporters, mostly men, muscling their way through our group, marching back and forth a few times, shouting their own slogans and drowning us out. Behind us came another group of mostly men carrying black flags which, at first, looked like ISIS flags but it soon became apparent that the script was actually Tamil and not the Tawhid slogan. Our misperception made us giggle helplessly at the ridiculous notion of ISIS expressing their democratic right to dissent. The Tamils were protesting because Modi has not acted on the Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring state of Karnataka in India. Their drums were louder than our slogans.

When we decided to relocate in Parliament Square, the noise, colour and tensions multiplied. Three elegantly turned out ‘ladies’ in white were complaining about our anti-Modi slogans and wondering where the rest of their group, the Indian Ladies in the UK, were. They had not taken a day off work for nothing.  They were here ‘simply’ to demand the death penalty for rapists and couldn’t work out why was #Modinotwelcome? When I pointed out that Modi’s delayed and lukewarm response, particularly as the child was Muslim and the perpetrators Hindu, was part of a culture of tolerance (even encouragement) towards anti-Muslim actions – like the cow vigilante gangs who beat up Muslims suspected of eating or trading in beef or harassment of Muslim men for conducting a ‘love jihad’ on Hindu women – they indulged in whataboutery: ‘What about the way we Hindus are treated in Dubai?’

I said I was a Hindu too but ashamed of being one because of our long history of oppression of the Dalits and Muslims. She said, you have no reason to be ashamed if you don’t personally exploit the Dalits. While we were arguing, I noticed a few gorgeously dressed Indian dancers walking past Parliament. Damn, we had missed the flash mob of dancers organized as a welcome for Modi!

In another gesture worthy of Magritte, a mobile hoarding van declaring support for Khaleda Zia, imprisoned on corruption charges by her arch rival, Sheikh Hasina, current PM of Bangladesh, circled the square but didn’t square the circle. Was her freedom also in the gift of Modi?

Meanwhile there was an altercation between two groups: the Khalistanis (fighting for an independent Punjab) and Azad Kashmiris were facing off against a group who also stood for free Kashmir but a secular one. They were avowedly against interference from both India and Pakistan but their main slogans were against Pakistani-funded Islamists. The police got involved and tried to keep them apart; they pushed the secular lot almost off the square. I went up to a police officer and said, ‘They are the good guys, the secular ones, don’t push them out of the square.’ The police officer said, ‘We’re not interested in their politics, we just want to enforce the peace.’ But the aggression was coming mainly from the Azad Kashmiris who were mouthing the most foul abuse in Urdu like, ‘We’ll tear your arseholes out’, which the police couldn’t understand.

As we left the demonstration, we saw a queue of 1500 ‘We love Modi’ supporters snaking around the Westminster Central Hall, sadly by far the biggest crowd, waiting to get in to hear him propound his views on the future of India. I stood in wonder at the visual metaphor for the Indian polity that the square represented – a glorious mela of the competing interests coming home to roost from Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’.