THE BLOG

Elephants Never Forget

22/05/2013 14:38 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST
AP

The problem with lessons learnt in the past is that they are easily forgotten. The use-it-or-lose-it nature of our memories means that if information is not utilised frequently, our brains are naturally predisposed to forget. By and large, it is a useful process but when it comes to choosing your country's next leader, it is probably a good idea to remember the past.

For India, it is remembering specifically the events of 2002, when the country experienced one of its worst cases of communal violence, since independence. The violence began in retaliation to a Muslim mob, which set alight a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. The train blaze killed 58 civilians and fuelled devastating acts of violence against the Muslim community, in the Indian state of Gujarat. For three days, Hindu fundamentalist groups descended on the state with "militia-like precision", butchering, burning and raping well over 1,000 people. 11 years on, it is important to remember these atrocities because the man in charge of the state, Narendra Modi, consistently accused of having a role in the riots, is now a serious contender to become Prime Minister in the 2014 Indian elections.

"Nothing succeeds like success" and this is seems to be true for Mr Modi's political career. With economic policy that boasts consistent annual growth rates of 10%, resource-rich Gujarat is an investors dream. It is one of the largest contributors to India's agricultural and dairy sectors as well as being home to 10% of the world's denim production. One of lowest rates of corruption and one the highest literacy rates in India, Gujarat is also considered an exceptionally safe state for women. Modi's seemingly flawless economics has made him a favourite not only among businesses but also for the top job in India. It is the hope that he can take India's dawdling economic progress and transform it into the fairy tale economic story that Gujarat represents.

However, for all his economic prowess, Mr. Modi has many a skeleton in his closet. Once a committed campaigner for the RSS, a Hindu nationalist group, whose activities have been banned on numerous occasions, this group, been accused of using terrorism to advance a fundamentalist ideology. Modi is now a member of the BJP, a party known for its understated anti-Muslim rhetoric. But even his dubious political membership is not enough to push Mr. Modi out of the running to become Prime Minister.

The real obstacle will be the contention about the politician's conduct in the 2002 riots as he is thought to have played a highly partisan and even facilitating role. A sting operation from an Indian magazine suggests that the state's police force were given orders to stand back and "let the riots happen".

Although a special investigation team, appointed by India's supreme court has officially cleared Mr Modi's name, there continues to be key questions which remain unanswered, and accusations of evidence being covered up still exist. For a start, half of the team investigating Modi's role in the riots was thought to be made up of police officers from his own state, which his government appointed. When the same evidence was presented to an independent inquiry, the report asked for a case to be proceeded against him. Modi denied any wrongdoing and despite many calls of improper judicial process, no case was pursued.

Immediately after the riots, Mr Modi was quoted publicly thanking the people of his state for showing restraint in response to the train blaze. In another interview he suggested that the Muslim community had brought on the violence themselves. And when announcing compensation for the victims of the train massacre and riots, Modi's government revealed that families of Hindu victims of the train tragedy would receive twice the compensation than families of Muslim victims, in the riots. The government later had to amend this arrangement.

India's National Human Rights Commission has asserted that the riots could not have taken place without " a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control" the riots. A Human Rights Watch investigation goes further to conclude that the attacks on the Muslim community were "organized with extensive police participation". Till date, Mr. Narendra Modi has refused to apologise for his government's failure in the riots. The EU and USA have since boycotted Modi.

Modi's divisive politics will not only be bad for India's economy and volatile foreign affairs situation with Pakistan, but it will also tarnish the key values of secularism and liberty on which India has been founded. If it really is true that elephants never forget, here's hoping that India will vote more like an elephant when it comes to polling day!