Following growing public criticism, the Financial Times magazine fDi has withdrawn its recent "Asian Personality of the Year" award to Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.
fDi had stunned human rights advocates when it announced the original award in late August. It was under Modi's government that Hindu mobs in 2002 slaughtered over 2,000 Muslims and drove thousands more from their homes. The Modi government has been accused of allowing the violence to continue, encouraging state police participation, and even obstructing attempts by victims seeking justice. Evidence suggests that Gujarat government officials may have directly encouraged the slaughter, perhaps for political gains among the Hindu electoral majority.
The fDi honor was announced in late August as one of several 2009 awards intended to highlight those who brought significant foreign investment into their local economies. (The magazine fDi itself stands for "foreign direct investment.") In its original web announcement, which has since been taken down, fDi credited Gujarat's Chief Minister for a large influx of foreign investment into Gujarat in recent years. Setting aside the economic rationale for the award, which itself is subject to debate, there is a bigger issue at hand.
Modi's government in Gujarat has been linked to one of the bloodiest episodes of violence in recent Indian history.
The 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom occurred in the aftermath of an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims that had stopped at a Gujarat train station. The pilgrims were returning from Ayodyha, a region that many Hindus consider to be the birthplace of Ram, an ancient king and incarnation of God. In Ayodhya, a Hindu nationalist movement had organized activists to demolish a Muslim mosque and erect a Hindu temple in its place. The mosque itself was considered by Hindus to have been built 500 years ago on the ruins of another Hindu temple.
At the time, it was reported that more than 50 Hindus died in the train fire at the Godhra train station. However, circumstances surrounding the alleged attack have been contested, including even the religious identities of the victims.
In the aftermatch, Hindu mobs went after Muslims in several Gujarat cities. Large numbers of Muslims were driven from their homes, attacked, and murdered. Muslim women were especially targeted for brutality, as noted by Amnesty International:
Violence against women and girls was a key feature of the violence. Scores of Muslim women and girls were sexually violated - raped, gang-raped or mutilated. Many saw their family members killed and their homes and businesses destroyed. After these traumatizing events many women victims were left to care for their family's survival, often in makeshift relief camps with inadequate support, conditions and reparations.
Many Indian and international human rights advocates have directly pointed the finger at Gujarat law enforcement for allowing, aiding, and even coordinating the violence. As Human Rights Watch reported in April of 2002:
In some cases they were merely passive observers. But in many instances, police officials led the charge of murderous mobs, aiming and firing at Muslims who got in the way. Under the guise of offering assistance, some police officers led the victims directly into the hands of their killers. Panicked phone calls made to the police, fire brigades, and even ambulance services generally proved futile. Several witnesses reported being told by police: "We have no orders to save you."
Some go further, arguing that the Gujarat Chief Minister actually encouraged or orchestrated the violence to boost political support in Hindu communities. The accusations were enough to lead to a visa denial for Modi when he attempted to visit the U.S. in 2005. Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, entry is prohibited to foreign government officials who are "responsible for ... particularly severe violations of religious freedom." In 2008, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body mandated by Congress, recommended that Modi again be denied entry.
It is within this context that the Financial Times subsidiary's decision to honor Modi seemed especially out of place. Though the original fDi announcement is no longer available online, it received coverage in the Indian media.
One Indian friend in New Delhi reacted strongly to the news. Because she works for a prominent international technology company, she asked that her name not be published. She herself is of Kashmiri Muslim background, and she had this to say:
Why is this surprising? Hasn't the business community, the great Indian elite, long admired Mr. Modi for his progressive thinking? He's won awards before, and accolades aplenty. When you are talking to the man about the location of your factories, doesn't part of your brain relay those indelible images of 2002? What do you tell yourself to continue having that conversation?
In the U.K., the Council of Indian Muslims issued a statement criticizing fDi for "being insensitive to the victims of anti-Muslim riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 and encouraging Hindu extremism in India."
In the U.S., academic voices Mira Kamdar and Vijay Prashad led an effort to urge Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of the Pearson Group, to direct her Financial Times subsidiary to drop the award. Together with cosigners from inside and outside the U.S., they stated, "This award gives Mr. Modi, whose human rights' reputation is most troubling, a huge boost of legitimacy where he deserves none."
The signatories had picked a responsive target with prominent affiliations. Scardino serves on the board of directors for the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the board of trustees for the Carter Center. Together with others who emailed fDi directly, they succeeded in encouraging the magazine to retract its award.
In the words of the magazine itself:
Following a review prompted by the ongoing investigation into the 2002 Gujarat riots, fDi has decided to present its award to Gujarat state, rather than Mr Narendra Modi, the state's chief minister...Mr Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots. Mr Modi's alleged role in connection to the riots is under investigation but he denies any responsibility.
Though the Financial Times subsidiary should never have granted the award to begin with, fDi did the right thing in retracting the award. Narendra Modi's government aided and abetted a terrible massacre. Modi should not be receiving congratulations today.