Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has mostly remained silent in India facing a storm of protests from citizen groups over civil liberties, was forced to answer at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday some of the most pointed questions of his career.
Barely minutes into the presser at the Locarno Room in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a BBC reporter asked him: "Prime Minister Modi, India is becoming an increasingly intolerant place. Why?" The Indian Prime Minister, who was accorded a grand welcome in London, invoked Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha to stress that there is no place for intolerance in India.
He answered all questions in Hindi.
"Bharat, yeh Buddha ki dharti hai. Bharat, yeh Gandhi ki dharti hai. Hindustan ke kisi bhi kone mein koi bhi ghatna ghate, Bharat ke liye woh ghatna ek ho, ya do ho, ya teen ho, sawa sau crore ke desh mein ek ghatna ka mahatwa hai ki nahi hai, ye hamare liye mayna nahi rakhta hai. Hamare liye har ghatna gambheer hoti hai, hum isko kisi bhi halat mein tolerate nahi karte hain, kaanoon kathorta se karyavaahi karta hai aur karega," he said.
Translated, it means that his government is committed to protect rights of its citizens. "It does not matter whether such an incident is significant for a country of 125 crore people. For us, every incident is serious," he said.
Hundreds of protesters holding flags that read 'Hindutva is threat to Indian unity' and 'Modi not welcome in UK' staged a demonstration outside Downing Street against Modi's visit to the UK. The "Modi Not Welcome" campaign is led by the Awaaz Network which is spearheading the protests.
Modi is the first PM to visit the UK in a decade.
The next question, again sharp, was from a Guardian correspondent who asked if the PM deserved the respect that would be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy with referring to the Gujarat riots which killed more than 1,000 people in 2002, when Modi was in power as Chief Minister of the state. The Guardian has been extremely critical of the current Indian government.
"And also prime minister Modi can I ask you, tomorrow night you will obviously have a rapturous reception at Wembley Stadium. There are a number of protesters out today who are saying, and I am wondering what you say to them, that given your record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, you do not deserve the respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy?" the reporter asked.
Modi did not directly respond to the Gujarat query and said instead that there was never any restriction on his coming to the UK. "I could not come due to time constraints. So you have wrong perception, please correct it," Modi responded. Cameron said as far as the "other issue", the Gujarat riots, is concerned, "there were legal proceedings".
He was responding to the question how comfortable he felt receiving Modi given the fact that during Cameron's first tenure, the Indian PM was not permitted to visit UK because of his record as Gujarat’s chief minister.
Days after the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri by a mob that suspected he had slaughtered a cow, held sacred by Hindus, Modi had said in an interview with the Anandabazar Patrika group "incidents like Dadri and Ghulam Ali are really sad but what is the role of the Centre in these incidents?”
10 days after the Dadri lynching, addressing an election rally in Nawada in Bihar, Modi said communal politics should be put to an end without making a direct reference to the Dadri lynching.
"I want to appeal to everyone that please don't listen to hate speech," he said, urging Hindus and Muslims to fight poverty, and not each other," he had said.
Interestingly, Modi, who has been criticized by his political opponents back home for taking jibes at the Congress on foreign soil, spoke highly of Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr Manmohan Singh.
"I will only say that many freedom fighters of India found their calling in the institutions of Britain. And many makers of modern India, including several of my distinguished predecessors, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr Manmohan Singh, passed through their doors," Modi told British MPs.
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