By Mano Ratwatte –
Indian media experts write in patronizing and condescending tones about how Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Mr. Sirisena should emulate PM Modi or use Modi as a role model? I think not. Indians and Modi should look at Mr. Sirisena and use him as a role model. They do have one similarity in the sense neither was well known until thrust into the limelight by elections. Modi was a local figure in Gujarat (served 3 terms as Chief Minister) until he took over the election commission leadership of the BJP in 2013. Ironically, Mahatma Gandhi was a Gujarati; yet Gujarat remains one of the most ethno-religiously divided states of India even today
Modi was born to an underprivileged caste family of Grocers classified(census) as a “backward class” in the highly casteist Hindu India. Mr. Sirisena was from the bread basket of Sri Lanka and from a family with Rice cultivation interests. Hence, Modi has more of a miracle on 34th Street kind of story of ascendancy to power in the world’s largest democracy in comparison to Mr. Sirisena. Modi started his life in the feared Hindu supremacists Rashtriya Sevak Sangam (RSS) which has a much feared paramilitary wing. RSS ideology is to impose an exclusive Hindu Raj in India. He was introduced to RSS at a tender age of 8.
When Mr. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat during his first term , whilst he had a very successful tenure in building Gujarat’s economy by creating a private sector friendly environment, he was also implicated in the terrible riots of 2002 which was known as the Gujarat pogrom. After the burning of a train where Hindu pilgrims were burnt(there were two commissions enquiring into it. The Gujarat courts and Gujarat commission found it to be a premeditated act of violence perpetrated on Hindu pilgrims to Ayodhaya where the controversial Babri Mosque was, but a Cong-I led Federal investigation concluded it was due to a mechanical failure inside the train). As a result of the death of Hindu pilgrims, it caused a lot of communal tensions in Gujarat.
Modi declared that the attack on the train had been an act of terrorism, not communal violence. Local newspapers and members of the state government used it to incite violence by claiming, without proof that the attack on the train was carried out by Pakistan’s intelligence agency and that local Muslims had conspired with them to attack Hindus in the state. False stories were also printed by local newspapers which claimed that Muslims kidnapped and then raped some Hindu women. Modi was found either unable to stem the violence or being complicit in them. Over 1,000 (or by some estimates, 2,000 Muslims) were murdered. About 730 Hindus died as well in the riots between the two communities.
Wiki entry on the post train violence states the following;
it is estimated that at least 250 girls and women had been gang raped and then burned to death. Children were killed by being burnt alive and those digging mass graves described the bodies as “burned and butchered beyond recognition”.Children were force fed petrol and then set on fire, pregnant women were gutted and their unborn child’s body then shown to the women. In the Naroda Patiya mass grave of 96 bodies 46 were women. The murderers also flooded homes and electrocuted entire families inside. Violence against women also included their being stripped naked, objects being forced into their bodies and then their being killed. According to Kalpana Kannabiran the rapes were part of a well organized, deliberate and pre-planned strategy, and that this puts the violence in the area of a political pogrom and genocide. Other acts of violence against women were acid attacks, beatings and the killing of women who were pregnant. Children were also killed in front of their parents. George Fernandes in a discussion in parliament on the violence caused widespread furor in his defence of the state government, saying that this was not the first time that women had been violated and raped in India.
Human Rights Watch blamed both the Central Government and the Gujarati Government. As a result of international actions, Mr. Modi could not visit the USA. He could not even obtain a tourist visa. All that changed only after Mr. Modi became the PM in his landslide election focusing on Islamic terrorism, corruption and the failing economy. Mr. Modi used anti Muslim rhetoric related to terrorism frequently during his campaign. In contrast, Mr. Sirisena’s campaign never used racist rhetoric and he could have got a visa tour the US anytime he was a minister.
In 2007, Mr. Modi justified the killing of an alleged criminal mastermind Sohrabuddin Sheikh in a fake encounter. It is only in recent times that he and his party have tried to change their Hinduvta ideology to become more inclusive and become a secular party like the Congress I party. Unfortunately, with the state of the economy and corruption the way it was, Cong I lost a landslide election. In contrast, Mr. Sirisena has never been involved in extra judicial killings.
Communist parties aren’t based on communal or religious lines but by class and economic policy lines. So from the onset, there is a huge difference in the mindset of the two persons. There is no record of Mr. Sirisena ever talking about a Buddhist Raj or Sinhala Raj dominating Sri Lanka.
Modi deep down still is a devout Hinduvta ideologue. Mr. Sirisena has been an SLFP leader championing the cause of the downtrodden peasant farmers given his agricultural background in Polonnaruwa.
Mr. Modi projected himself as a bachelor for a very long time and ignored his estranged wife. He was finally forced to admit during the election campaign that he had married 50 years ago. In fact, he was forced to acknowledge this and he had filed income tax returns claiming to be unmarried. Modi’s marriage was a result of a hapless arranged marriage when they were teenagers. (the tragedy of arranged marriages in Indian culture is a topic by itself). In contrast Mr. And Mrs. Sirisena have been happily and openly married and have children.
Modi introduces progressive economic reforms and is viewed as a pro-business pragmatic leader in his last tenure. Gujarat’s success in recovering from an economic slump is credit to Modieconomics and actions to speed up government decision-making and removing bureaucratic hurdles slowing development. Amongst his few critics was Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, who said that he did not want Modi as a Prime Minister because he had not done enough to make minorities feel safe, and that under Modi, Gujarat’s record in health and education provision has been “pretty bad”
After the recent drubbing in the New Delhi election, where Narendra Modi’s BJP won just three of 70 seats with 67 going to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a grass-roots anti-corruption movement led by 46-year-old former tax inspector, Arvind Kejriwal Mr. Modi has realized that his party and the BJP had turned off a lot of educated secular middle class Indians who value freedom of religion.
This writer mentioned the strategic alliance between the US and India because of fears of Islamic terrorism and China before and how the Rajapakse regime failed to recognize this and overplayed the China card. However when President Obama stunned Indians with his reference to growing religious intolerance in India, Indians were stunned.
Modi has since then taken course correction measures or at least appears to do so by making statements about how his government will ensure that there is “complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence”. The Delhi drubbing and looming State elections are the real reason why he has now started to talk about freedom of religion. Thus, condescending Indian arguments that Modi should be a role model for Mr. Sirisena are flawed in many ways. I lived in India during the heinous Cong-I targeted attacks on Sikhs in 1984 as well. When it comes to such terrible ethnic conflagrations against minorities, India’s record is not that great. It has an overwhelming military presence in Kashmir and the North Eastern states too. India doesn’t seem too enthused about a permanent political settlement in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir either.
Modi should use Mr. Sirisena as a role model for the amazing simple kind way Mr. Sirisena has conducted himself so far. How little Indians know of Sri Lanka was obvious those days when a lot of North Indians used to ask me “do you worship Hanuma?” “do you speak Hindi?” and conversations followed with a very patronizing attitude towards Sinhalese and Tamils who are both Dravidian in ancestry than Aryan North Indians.
Progressive states like Kerala where the literacy rate is a high 93% have been able to break from the stifling restraints of class and caste because of a high percentage of Christians and also because of a very strong communist movement where the State government was in the hands of the Communist party of India since 1957, when the people of the state of Kerala became the first group in the world to democratically elect a communist government. The Communists maintained power in the state for 50 years, finally losing control of its majority coalition in 2011.
Mr. Sirisena by being exposed to communist ideology at a young age therefore is more progressive than Mr. Modi in thinking. Kerala is the most progressive state in India; Keralans and Sinhalese are far more linked ethnically than we’d care to admit. In contrast, Tamil Nadu has a literacy rate of 80% and the most backward state of Bihar where caste based atrocities occur daily and parts of it are still ruled by armed village gangsters, the literacy rate is 63%. India remains a terribly hierarchical society where Caste and tribal affiliations play a huge role in keeping people down. It is part and parcel of the role Caste plays in the Hindu religion; Modi is very much a product of that society.
Modi is not necessarily a role model for Sri Lanka; but Sri Lanka can learn a lot about the fierce independence of the civil service, Indian elections commission, apolitical military and police forces, the judiciary and even about their reliable super efficient inter-state railway system and depoliticize critical government institutions on an accelerated timetable.
If any world leader should be a role model for Mr. Sirisena, Mr. Modi, Mr. Rajapaksa or Mr. Wickremesinghe it should be the amazing President of Uruguay Mr. Jose Mujica the former Tupamaros Guerilla leader. He is the world’s humblest president. His austere lifestyle and his donation of around 90 percent of his $12,000 (approx 1.58million Rupees) monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs makes him a real role model for every aspiring third world leader.