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In a Glass House


The Telegraph, Calcutta, Mar. 20, 2005

Photo: Narendra Modi

Ideological fervour and principles grounded in reason are always at loggerheads.

Most haters of Mr. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, will find an occasion to rejoice at the fact that the government of the United States of America has denied him a visa. Congenital critics of the U.S. government are suddenly applauding one of its decisions. The denial of the visa and the revoking of a previous one are both based on legal grounds. U.S. law declares that any government official who was responsible for the violation of religious freedom is ineligible for a visa. Mr. Modi thus stands condemned by the U.S. government for his involvement in the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. This might warm the cockles of secular hearts but the matter needs to be looked at without ideological blinkers and without condoning Mr. Modi's responsibility for the killing of Muslims in Gujarat. Indeed, it is necessary to separate the moral outrage against Mr. Modi and the moral approval of the U.S. government's decision.

Mr. Modi, for good or for bad, is an elected chief minister of an Indian state. Despite what he did or did not do, he won a democratic mandate. He also wanted to visit the U.S. as the chief minister of Gujarat. The function that he was invited to attend is dominated by people from the state of Gujarat. The U.S. government chose to ignore the verdict of Indian democracy.

Large sections of educated Indians, including eminent people in the corridors of power, believe that the president of the U.S., Mr. George W. Bush, has violated democratic norms and has, without reason, killed thousands of innocent people in Iraq. Under Mr. Bush's leadership, U.S. intelligence agencies produced false evidence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and unleashed an unprovoked war on that country. What does this make Mr. Bush? Some would suggest that he should be charged with crimes against humanity. Yet, he is the elected president of the people of the U.S. and this status has to be respected despite moral and ideological opposition to his policies and actions. Similarly, presidents like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, despite their killing of tens of thousands of Vietnamese, were allowed to travel because of the official position they had acquired through a democratic process.

The U.S. government, because of its military superiority, has fashioned itself as the lord of the world and as its moral head prefect. But its moral righteousness is never turned to the violations U.S. presidents perpetrate. Mr. Modi's name will forever be implicated with the worst pogrom carried out in independent India. What is equally undeniable is that he is the elected chief minister of Gujarat. Nobody demands that the U.S. government should respect Mr. Modi as a person. The elected office Mr. Modi holds is worthy of respect. Is that too much to expect from holier-than-thou Uncle Sam?