Well before Modi’s visit to the UK for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) actually took place, it was clear that things would be different from his 2015 visit to the country, which was marked by his ‘rock-star’ style public appearance at Wembley in front of thousands. Then too of course, Modi faced significant protests, with a major demonstration during his visit with then PM David Cameron at Downing Street forcing some hard questions onto the agenda at a subsequent press conference. Four years into his Prime Ministership, with widespread awareness and anger at the epidemic of mob-lynchings of Muslims and anti-Dalit violence by Hindutva forces, and Modi’s model of ‘development’ exposed as deepening economic crisis for the many and the rewards of corrupt crony capitalism for the Indian and global few, Modi was clearly taking no chances. Even before the Kathua and Unnao rape cases became the subjects of mass anger and protests across India, the Hindustan Times reported that the likelihood of protests and ‘security concerns’ had led to the abandonment of any plans for a large scale event in London. As it turned out, the visit effectively shattered the myth of monolithic diaspora adulation which Modi has long been promoting. The vigorous and diverse protests overshadowing the small-scale ‘Bharat Ki Baat’ event where Modi addressed handpicked members of the diaspora, and the Prime Minister dispensing with a press conference altogether and changing his schedule numerous times in an effort to dodge protestors.
The key messages of the protests were transmitted even before Modi actually landed in Britain. South Asia Solidarity Group organized a van to circulate in the Parliament Square, Downing Street, Trafalgar Square and Embankment areas of central London with a digital screen projecting key messages telling Londoners why Indians in the UK were protesting Modi’s visit; demanding justice for the 8-year-old girl in the horrific Kathua rape and murder case and explaining why Modi and the BJP must be held to account, and highlighting the key slogan of the protests, Modi Not Welcome! Photographs of the van quickly went viral on social media.
On the day of Modi’s arrival and his main engagements, with London basking in bright sunshine and unseasonal heat, protestors poured into the Downing Street (the British Prime Minister’s residence) and Parliament Square areas, along with Modi fans mobilized by the UK’s active Hindutva groups. While the right-wing pro-government media predictably sought to exclusively highlight the presence of Kashmiri and Khalistani protestors who had gathered in Parliament Square, it was impossible to ignore the powerful presence of left, progressive, Dalit, Muslim, feminist and other groups from the Indian diaspora at the forefront of the protests against Modi’s visit.
South Asia Solidarity Group along with the biggest Dalit organisation in Britain, CasteWatch UK, and the students of the SOAS India Society, began with a vocal and angry protest outside 10 Downing Street, and were supported by several women’s organizations, groups from the Keralan and Tamil communities in Britain (the latter waving black flags echoing the recent ‘Modi Go Back’ protests in Tamil Nadu) and many progressive and left individuals. In mobilizing for the protest, South Asia Solidarity Group had highlighted particularly that Modi is a proud fascist and admirer of Hitler; a protector of rapists; a patron of lynch-mobs and genocidal attacks on minorities; a supporter of caste and murders of Dalits; that he is responsible for assassinating dissenters and silencing critical media; undermining the judicial system; intensifying atrocities in Kashmir; welcoming corporate plunder; and he is a friend of Trump and Netanyahu.
The protestors raised slogans including ‘Who killed Asifa? BJP, RSS!’ ‘Modi, Modi Shame, Shame, no more killings in our name’ ‘BJP-Rapist Party’ and ‘Balatkari Yeh Sarkar, Nahin Chalegi Ab ki Baar’. They carried placards bearing the faces of those we have seen brutally murdered including Junaid Khan, Afrazul Khan and Gauri Lankesh as well as the 8-year-old Kathua rape and murder victim.
This was followed by a noisy and spirited march under a large banner reading Justice for Asifa! and Modi Not Welcome! and with a group of Tamil Paraiya drummers at the front, to Parliament Square where a number of speakers addressed the rally.
Meanwhile, the outrage over the Kathua and Unnao rape cases had clearly caused rifts among erstwhile Modi supporters and reduced their numbers – for example while an organisation called ‘Indian Ladies in UK’ had planned a ‘Bollywood-style’ flashmob dance to greet their idol – even in the face of his continuing silence over his party leaders’ perpetration of rape and defence of rapists, a section of their members rebelled and chose instead to call a silent protest against the rapes, calling on Modi to step in to ‘protect women and girls’. Even such muted, patriarchal and paradoxical demands however were clearly too much for the ultra-choreographed televised event showcasing Modi. Members of an umbrella group of Indian students’ organizations in the UK, which raised similar demands while carefully avoiding highlighting the BJP’s own culpability still found their tickets to Modi’s ironically titled ‘Bharat Ki Baat – Sabke Saath’ (Let’s Talk India With Everyone) Q and A session withdrawn!
The ongoing colonial nature of the Commonwealth was underlined during the CHOGM by the eruption of the Windrush scandal which has exposed how Theresa May’s government with its avowed policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for all migrants deemed ‘illegal’ has been cruelly deporting many older people who had migrated to the UK from the Caribbean decades back in the 1950s and 1960s as children, when their parents responded to the invitation of the British government which needed workers in its post-war reconstruction and boom. Such targeting of Indians long settled is perhaps unlikely as long as they remain a votebank for the Conservative Party, but Modi is in any case much more interested in trade deals which can benefit Indian and British corporates at the expense of India’s people than in advocating for the rights of Indians in Britain – in fact, even ahead of the visit, he announced that he would be signing a memorandum of understanding on ‘the speedier return of illegal Indians in the UK’.
The visit ended as it had begun, with Modi fleeing protestors, this time insulting British Dalits by abruptly cancelling a scheduled and much publicized unveiling of Dr Ambedkar’s statue at Ambedkar House in North London. This was apparently to avoid a silent protest outside by members of Dalit organisation Castewatch UK who had hoped to ask Modi about the escalating violence against Dalits and minorities in India since he came to power. As a spokesperson for CasteWatchUK said ‘would (Modi) have called off the inauguration at the last minute if, instead of the Ambedkar statue, it had been a statue of Gandhi, Sardar Patel, or any other of India’s late national leaders? It is an insult to Ambedkar and a snub to Dalits. As such it exposes the hypocrisy of PM Modi’.