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US NRIs divided over Modi issue


Washington, March 20, 2005
Maya Mirchandani

It was the work of one core group which led to the US government denying Narendra Modi a visa.

The Coalition against Genocide minced no words in their campaign against the chief minister for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots.

Voicing opinions

Even before and especially since the Gujarat riots, NRI activists have been fighting to have their voices heard by the US government, against what they allege is the funding of communal violence in India by many Indian Americans who support the Hindu right.

"Gujarat 2002 was a watershed. It was an important moment in the sense that it was a genocide in all ways and people I think a lot of us were for the first time really began to realise the power of the Hindu right when they actually occupy state apparatus, the complicity and how they allowed such violence to unfold," said Ashwini Rao, Campaign to Stop Funding Hate.

The visa controversy has divided the NRIs in the US. The people who invited Modi are furious.

Rallying behind Modi

Nevertheless the Overseas Friends of the BJP, a rich and influential group and the Asian-American hotel owners are pressing ahead with their plans both with a rally at Madison Square Garden's theater as well as a convention in Florida.

"In denying visa to Narendra Modi, America has made a mistake. It is an insult to India's pride. Indian people are very upset and agitated and I think it will unite the Hindus, it will expose the Muslims," said Arish Sahani, General Secretary, Overseas Friends of the BJP.

The visa controversy has had another fallout. In a huge blow for the organisers the credit card giant American Express cancelled its sponsorship of the events that Modi was going to attend after the US government denied him a visa.

Clearly a sign that the activist groups which the BJP supporters once only recognised for their nuisance value are beginning to be taken seriously.

"American Express has cancelled its sponsorship of the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association function. In reaction to this, our community leaders met and have decided that all Indian Americans will boycott American Express. Tomorrow, in Madison Square Garden, we will gather to destroy our credit cards," said Jagdish Sehwani, Overseas Friends of the BJP.

The anti-BJP activists, encouraged by their victory say the campaign is not restricted to Narendra Modi.

"The fact that Modi is not coming which is good, but his supporters will all be there and he still enjoys a lot of financial support, the Hindu right does enjoy a lot of financial support from their counterpart organisations here, so for us I see it is as a turning point in a larger long term struggle to perhaps marginalise these right wing organisations," said Ashwini Rao, Campaign to Stop Funding Hate.

But the BJP and its supporters claim say this one episode has changed Indo-US relations. Ironically it's the BJP which is credited for improving this relationship during their rule at the Centre.

"I don't have anything against the protestors. But I am upset with the State Department. They should have heard our case too before even deciding," said Jagdish Sehwani, Overseas Friends of the BJP.

Increasing tensions

This is certainly not the first time that confrontation has taken place between the Hindu right in America and groups like the Coalition against Genocide.

But the fact that the protests were loud enough to be heard and acted upon in Washington has taken tensions to a new level.

Come Sunday, it will be daggers drawn at Madison Square Garden as the event organisers insisting the rally will continue with a video link with Narendra Modi and protesters insist they will be heard outside.

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