Inside Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi basked in a festival of national pride as he met with nearly 20,000 Indian-Americans.
Outside the arena, the assessment of Modi was more mixed as small groups of clamorous supporters and protestors– also from the Indian diaspora – argued about whether the new prime minister is a Hindu hero or an international villain.
Modi’s supporters congregated on 7th avenue near an entrance to Penn Station, where they waved Indian flags and carried signs that read ¨PM Modi: USA must join India and BRICS.”
Just across the street, opposition protestors offered a different message. ¨Modi, Modi, you can’t hide. You committed genocide,” they chanted. Some held signs comparing the Prime Minister and his party to Hitler and ISIS. The chants refer to allegations that Modi bears responsibility for the deaths of up to 2,000 Muslims in 2002 riots in India’s Gujarat state, where Modi was chief minister.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department denied him a tourist visa due to “severe violations of religious freedom,” but an Indian court ruling subsequently said there was no evidence for the anti-Muslim riot allegations. Still, the charges have continued to trail Modi’s rise to political stardom. This past Friday, a federal court in New York issued a summons to Modi for a riot-related lawsuit filed by the American Justice Center.
Indian Muslims were among those in the crowd of some 1,200 protestors on Sunday, but so were Sikhs, another religious minority in India, where Hindus make up over 80 percent of the population. Sikhs who gathered in opposition expressed anger about the Indian Army’s 1984 storming of the Sikh Golden Temple and subsequent anti-Sikh riots in India. “It’s not about only Modi, it’s about Hinduism. Hindus are killing other people,” said protestor Rana Singh. But the real problem, said Singh, is “the government, not normal Hindus.¨
Modi supporter Udhav Joshi dismissed the Sikh protestors, noting that Modi “wasn’t even in power¨ in 1984.
But Indian minorities were not the only ones who objected to the Prime Minister’s first visit to the U.S. since his election in May. “These atrocities that were committed in Gujarat in 2002 were attempted to be committed in the name of all Hindus, and especially the Gujarati Hindus,” said Svati Shah, a Gujarati Hindu and professor of Urban Studies and Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, who addressed the crowd of protestors. “Narendra Modi does not speak for me. He does not speak for other Gujarati Hindus.”
Shreenath Menon, a Modi supporter, expressed his desire for India to move forward. “The supreme court verdict is clean against him,” said Menon, referring to 2012 findings from a Supreme Court appointed commission that exonerated Modi from wrongdoing during the Gujarat riots. “India has learned from its mistakes,” he said.