Monday, July 07, 2014

Stoking religious divisions is something Modi "still needs to do" in future: Pulitzer Prize winning journo

By Our Representative
A New York Times feature (July 5) has said Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a campaigner during the elections may have “assiduously avoided religious issues, hewing to the economic growth platform that carried him to a landslide victory”, and he may have "tried to set a conciliatory, centrist tone, and some of his decisions since taking power have disappointed his far-right backers”. But the presence of Sanjeev Balyan in his council of ministers is “a reminder that stoking (religious) divisions remains a way to win votes, something that Modi still needs to do in order to build up a team of regional allies in the coming months and years.”
Minister of state for agriculture, Balyan holds a “high-profile post”, the NYT feature says, adding, “On the heels of an ugly episode of religious polarization, Balyan won election to Parliament in a landslide, delivering this sugarcane-producing region in the politically vital state of Uttar Pradesh into the hands of Modi’s center-right BJP for the first time in 15 years.” The feature has been authored by Ellen Barry as the main writer, who won Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2010 for "Above the Law," a series about corruption and abuse of power in Russia two decades after the end of communism.
What makes the choice of Balyan, a veterinarian, curious is that he “is a first-time officeholder famous for precisely one thing: After two Hindu men were killed in an altercation with Muslims in his district last summer, he rallied crowds of angry young men from his caste, urging them to protect their own kind”. Here, Berry quotes reports to say that Balyan, before the riots in Muzaffarnagar, would address crowds to say, “Wherever we will find people belonging to the Muslim community, by killing them, we will get our revenge”
“A week later, mobs of armed Hindu men descended on local villages, leaving around 60 people, mostly Muslims, dead and prompting tens of thousands of Muslims to flee their homes”, Berry says, drawing a parallel with Gujarat riots: “It was an echo of the episode that has haunted Modi’s political career for more than a decade. In 2002, not long after Modi had taken office as chief minister of Gujarat, riots broke out after Hindu pilgrims burned to death in a train.”
Berry recalls, how during the 2002 riots, “some Hindus blamed Muslims for setting a coach of a train on blaze, and “weeks of bloodletting followed. More than 1,200 people died, most of them Muslims. Modi, who has close ties to right-wing Hindu organizations, was long blamed for failing to stop the killing.” She quotes Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst, to say, “It is one ballgame to win an election and an entirely different ballgame to run a country like India.”
Balyan taking oath to be minister
While the violence that tore through the Muzaffarnagar district last August “began with an ordinary quarrel”, and “some sharp words were exchanged” after the incident brawl, the riots shook following several developments. Thus, though the BJP “was not traditionally strong in the region, high-ranking officials became regular visitors to the Jat areas, making the three-hour journey from New Delhi”, and Balyan became the “true local champion”.
“Balyan and other leaders were detained several days later in what the police described as a preventive measure. In June, investigators submitted charges against them for ‘promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion’, and disobeying and obstructing public servants,” Berry says, yet adding, “In an interview “Balyan played down the importance of the charges, which he described as ‘the kind of case which can be slapped against anyone for political reasons’.”
Describing the riots, Berry says, “The weekend after the gathering brought another huge meeting of Hindu men — and a burst of violence. Groups of men armed with machetes and clubs coursed through the streets of Kutba Kutbi, Balyan’s home village, some chanting ‘Go to Pakistan, or go to the graveyard’, said Muslims who fled the village that day… They set fire to the mosque and Muslims scattered, some taking shelter on their roofs and others plunging into sugarcane fields.”
Berry quotes a Muslims who fled the village as saying, “We saw body parts lying about”. Eight men and one woman were killed in that one village, residents said, listing out the names. She quotes Indramani Tripathi, a top civil official in Muzaffarnagar, as saying, “I have never seen anything like it, and I hope and pray I never see such a situation again.”
Even today, “none of the village’s Muslims have returned to their homes”, Berry says, adding, “Though Hindus from Qutba occasionally pass through the new Muslim settlement, they do not stop, and the two groups regard each other with cold distrust, braced for new violence. Mohammad Jafar Siddiqui, 32, grimaced when asked about Balyan’s new post: ‘For his role in shedding the blood of innocentshe was rewarded with a ministership’.”
Pointing to how September’s riots were, to a great extent, “eclipsed by the seismic political events of the spring, when the BJP made a stunning showing in Uttar Pradesh, winning 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats”, in Berry’s view, “Voters in Uttar Pradesh were not exactly swept up in the Modi wave, with 62 per cent of them saying they would have voted for the BJP regardless of its leader, according to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. Indeed, in his campaigning Balyan often explicitly departed from Modi’s centrist message.”

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