The election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India raises a tricky question for British foreign policy and the Labour party in particular: how do we deal with the man we barred from entering the UK?
Neither the Conservatives nor Labour can afford to ignore Modi, let alone shun him as before. India is not just a potentially valuable geopolitical ally of the United Kingdom, it is an even stronger trading partner: Indian firms are now the fifth largest investors in the UK, while India is the top destination for FTSE 100 companies investing in emerging markets. As it grows into one of the biggest economies in the world, the UK has no option but to engage.
But neither can we forget the past because it may very well repeat itself. The newly-elected Bharatiya Janata party is an avowedly Hindu nationalist party, which is not just code for running the country along Hindu values but frequently involves stirring up religious tension. Put aside the controversy over the 2002 riots aside, briefly.
In the last month alone, Narendra Modi’s closest aide was banned from making speeches by the Electoral Commission for inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric; another key ally was caught on camera calling for Muslim families to be evicted from Hindu areas; another BJP leader said critics of Modi should leave for Pakistan.
All this matters not because the UK should interfere in another country’s internal affairs, but because it actively affects British citizens too. The cultural, religious and familial links between the UK and India are so strong that what happens there has an impact here.
In 2002, three British Muslim citizens were caught in the Gujarat riots and killed by Hindu mobs. They still have not been afforded any justice or help from the Indian government. As Channel 4’s Jon Snow noted this week: ‘investigations on the ground found that the anti-Muslim riots were planned and highly organised. There was also the strong belief that Mr Modi’s hand had, at the very least, made little effort to restrain them.’ Even now, Modi is showing unwillingness to show any contrition for deaths that took place under his watch.
Channel 4 also revealed in 2002 that money was being funnelled from the UK to extremist Hindu groups in India. Furthermore, religious tension in India has led to polarisation and increased tension between British Indian communities too.
While there will be pressure from members of parliament with significant numbers of British Gujarati constituents to ignore the past (Modi is of Gujarati background and commands strong support from British Hindus, most of whom are Gujaratis, but not Sikhs or Muslims), that pressure should be resisted.
A British government with a Conservative or Labour foreign secretary has no choice but to engage with the Indian government. But we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to events within India, especially if events such as the riots of 2002 are repeated or the BJP stokes up religious tension for political gain.
Labour has to be willing to criticise where necessary, because inter-community relations and the lives of British citizens may also be at stake.
Sunny Hundal is a journalist and writer. He tweets @Sunny_Hundal
Photo: Al Jazeera English
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