12 Nov 2015

Modi visit: praise and protest as Indian PM arrives in UK

The arrival of Narendra Modi, leader of the world’s largest democracy, is described by David Cameron as a “historic opportunity”. But protesters condemn his record on free speech and human rights.

With a population of over 1.25 billion, and the number of middle class households expected to soar from over 110 to 547 million by 2025, India is a land of business opportunities – which the UK government hopes to exploit.

Writing on his Facebook page ahead of his visit, Mr Modi said his discussions would particularly focus on defence manufacturing, clean energy and co-operation in science, technology and education.

And with 1.4 million people from India or of Indian descent living in the UK, cultural ties are deep-rooted too. On Friday some 60,000 people will attend a rally at Wembley Stadium to hear Mr Modi speak.

But not everyone has welcomed his arrival.

Freedom of speech

More than 200 writers including Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Val McDermid have signed an open letter to David Cameron calling on the British governement to raise the issue of freedom of expression in India.

The letter raises concerns about “the rising climate of fear, growing intolerance and violence towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy or fundamentalism in India”, citing the deaths of three “public intellectuals” in the last two years, and at least 37 journalists since 1992.

Since April, Mr Modi’s government has cancelled the licences allowing foreign funding of about 9,000 charities including the Indian arm of the environmental charity Greenpeace, which it accuses of damaging India’s economic interests by campaigning against mining and nuclear projects.

Controversial politician

The first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over a decade marks another reversal of fortune for Narendra Modi, who was born into poverty as the son of a tea seller.

Elected in 2014 after a landslide general election victory for his Hindu nationalist BJP party, his charismatic style has drawn a passionate following among a variety of interest groups in India.

But his alleged failure in 2002 while serving as Gujurat chief minister, to quell rioting in which hundreds of Muslims died, caused the UK government to refuse to deal with him for a ten year period. He was banned from entering Britain until 2012.

The Awaaz Network, a group co-ordinating protests against the current visit, sparked outrage when it projected the words “Modi not Welcome” with an image of a swastika onto the Houses of Parliament on Remembrance Sunday. Awaaz told the International Business Times that the Modi government had unleashed a violent “authoritarian agenda that seeks to undermine India’s democratic and secular fabric.”

As a motorcade swept Mr Modi and the Queen towards Buckingham Palace, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Dalits joined protests outside Downing Street shouting “Modi go home”.