Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Why is South Africa so eager to welcome Narendra Modi?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s imminent arrival in South Africa seemingly has everyone excited.

A few “grand receptions” will welcome Modi to the country, where he is expected – among other things – to be part of “discussions” on change, minorities, and hate speech.

But why? Why is South Africa – where we normally shun the controversial, racist, and violent – is so eager to welcome Modi, a dangerous politician once called a “divisive manipulator” by a prominent Indian novelist?

South Africans appear to be oblivious of Modi’s actions, which include spending a large part of his life in the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a group of Hindu fascists who have been called “no different to Isis” by historians, and whose alumni include Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi.

Back in 2002, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed a fire on a train which killed over 50 Hindu pilgrims on Pakistani secret services, then used it to justify a three-day strike where mobs dragged women and children on the streets to be raped. It is understood that between 1 000 and 2 000 people were killed, mainly Muslims.

He puts campaign groups under intense scrutiny, he closed down Greenpeace India, and earlier this year, student Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for allegedly shouting anti-India sentiments at a commemoration for the death of Afzal Guru, an alleged terrorist who was hanged in 2013 for his apparent role in an attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.

So irate were BJP supporters, that Kumar sought to stand trial in front of India’s Supreme Court for a bail application, as he feared for his safety.    

It has also been revealed that Modi has allowed RSS to gain influence in India’s education ministry, and have even doled out RSS-written textbooks to schoolchildren in Gujarat.

Last year, over 40 of India’s regarded writers had returned literature awards in protest after Hindu fanatics lynching people for eating beef in what they see as a “climate of intolerance” under Modi’s leadership. 

It is widely accepted by his critics that Modi’s rulership in India – a religiously diverse country, which has the third highest Muslim population in the world – resembles a “Hindu taliban, where religious minorities are at “serious risk”, and those who disobey traditional Hindu rules are in danger.

But regardless, A 10 000-strong crowd is expected to welcome Modi next week in Johannesburg, treating him to both Zulu and Indian dancing.  

The group hosting it, South Africa Welcomes Modi, called the visit a “very timely one for South Africa,” and an interviewee in Durban’s Sunday Tribune newspaper a few weeks ago noted that Modi is “widely respected and admired by Indian South Africans”, and that he inspires hope for them – god, I really hope not.

Last week I attended a National Hindu Conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where speakers – including Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma – spoke of Hinduism and human rights and responsibilities.

Ashwin Trikamjee, President of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, had nothing to say to me when I asked him what he made of Modi’s imminent arrival in Durban.

Nor could Ela Gandhi, who just delivered a speech which said that Hinduism advocates “non-injury in thought, word, and deed”. All she told me was that South African Indians should stop seeing Modi as their president, and treat him as they would any visiting leader.

When I asked her whether she thought he was controversial, she simply replied that all presidents are.  

Modi, it seems, has managed to dupe the world; not only are many not critical of him, but most appear oblivious to his antics.

To think such a person will be part of engagements on hate speech in South Africa, and is seen as a hero to South African Indians, is as perplexing as it is worrying.