October 15, 2012 6:19 pm
Narendra Modi is chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most dynamic and business-friendly states. But for 10 years he has also been an international pariah as the Hindu nationalist leader of a regional government accused of complicity in riots which killed an estimated 2,000 Muslims. As Britain prepares to restore contacts with Mr Modi, this shameful episode should not be airbrushed from history in the interests of diplomacy.
Mr Modi has always denied accusations that he turned a blind eye to the riots of 2002 and he has not been charged with any crime. But four years ago India’s Supreme Court denounced the Gujarat administration’s attempts to cover up its role in what are now known to have been, at least in part, organised pogroms. Human Rights Watch this year condemned Mr Modi’s government for its failure to investigate the violence and its persistent efforts to obstruct justice.
Barely two months ago, one of his former ministers was jailed for 28 years after being found guilty of involvement in an attack in 2002 in which almost 100 people died. Despite this, Mr Modi has never expressed any remorse or apologised for the killings.
It is possible to see why the UK government might be keen to move on, even though three UK citizens died in the violence. Commercial pragmatism has played a part. Gujarat’s economy is one of the most buoyant in India. It has become a destination for British and other foreign investment, and is potentially an attractive market for UK exports.
The timing is, however, highly questionable. It comes as Gujarat prepares for elections in December, which Mr Modi is expected to win. His majority could be enhanced by his new-found international acceptance. Recognition may also boost his chances for India’s national elections in 2014, where he is being cited as a possible prime minister. Mr Modi is now a far more serious contender than he would have been had he still been shunned internationally.
Realpolitik means governments often have to take a pragmatic approach in dealing with leaders with questionable records. But this does not mean they have to let up the pressure over human rights abuses or distasteful policies.
Britain and others have now decided to engage with Mr Modi. But they should also make it clear that rehabilitation is not licence for the type of supremacist-inspired nationalism that fuelled the 2002 massacres.