TIME India

India’s Modi Comes Full Circle at Madison Square Garden

Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India waves to the crowd as he arrives to give a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York. Jason DeCrow—AP

Thousands of Indian Americans turned out to welcome the visiting leader at the famous New York arena

Until this weekend, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had one thing in common with Eric Prydz, the Swedish DJ and electronic dance music star known for his elaborate concerts. Prydz’s shows are audiovisual extravaganzas complete with pulsating lasers, animations and three-dimensional holograms, including one of the man himself. Modi, too, has experience with digital doppelgängers: during the Indian national election in which his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) eventually won a large majority, the 64-year-old used the latest in high-tech wizardry to deploy holograms of himself at simultaneous rallies around the country.

Now, Prydz and the Prime Minister have two things in common.

On Sunday morning, hours after the Swedish DJ finished playing an extended set at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, lines began forming along 31st Street and up 7th Avenue for the next big act at the venue: a “community reception” for Modi, who like Prydz, made his debut at the famed arena this weekend.

Thousands of Indian Americans turned out to cheer the visiting leader, almost filling the giant hall to capacity. Over 18,000 people had been assigned free tickets via a lottery, after more than 30,000 applied to attend. Inside, as the crowd settled in, big screens above the stage flashed stylized portraits of Modi looking out into the far distance that resembled Shepard Fairey’s 2008 “Hope” poster of Barack Obama. Many in the audience wore T-shirts bearing the same image. Accompanying the crowd was a contingent of American lawmakers: New Jersey Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Senator Bob Menendez was there, along with over three dozen congressional colleagues, and also the Indian-American Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.

Organized by a newly established group called the Indian American Community Foundation, the whole affair had the feel of an election rally or party convention — so much so that, at one stage, as the crowd anticipated the Prime Minister’s arrival by chanting his name, one of the M.C.s light-heartedly reminded the audience that Modi had already been elected.

His entrance after a series of musical and dance warm-up acts sent the audience into a frenzy. In his speech, delivered from a rotating platform, Modi reiterated his campaign promises to fix India’s ailing economy and announced measures to simplify visa procedures for foreigners of Indian descent. “Since taking over, I haven’t even taken a 15-minute vacation,” he said, drawing yet more cheers.

It was a date nearly 10 years in the making. In 2005, Modi, then chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, was preparing to travel to the U.S. to address Indian Americans from the same New York stage, when the Bush Administration slammed the door shut in his face. The U.S. denied him a diplomatic visa and yanked his existing nondiplomatic visa under a law barring entry to any foreign government official “who was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” pointing to the bloody sectarian rioting in Gujarat on his watch in 2002. His absence at the Madison Square Garden event was marked with an empty chair on the podium

But then, in May this year, the BJP forcefully shoved a Congress Party–led coalition off the seat of power in Delhi. General elections gave the Hindu nationalists the biggest single-party parliamentary majority in three decades, a feat that firmly established Modi as the biggest beast on the national scene. The Congress, blamed for a raft of high-profile corruption scandals and for steering the economy into a ditch, was consigned to the political undergrowth. An invitation to the White House soon followed — Modi heads to Washington, D.C., on Monday — and the visa ban was conveniently forgotten.

And so, quite apart from what it means for Indo-U.S. ties, this week’s visit marks “the culmination of the re-imagination of Narendra Modi, from someone who was denied entry onto U.S. soil to a leader who is being feted by the New York and Washington, D.C., establishment,” says Milan Vaishnav, an associate with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The size of the Madison Square Garden rally might also prove politically useful as Modi meets President Barack Obama, says Vaishnav. “It’s a politically savvy move. It sends the message that, in addition to a very large support base back home, Modi also has supporters in the U.S. It says to the American government, Look, I have a constituency among your voters, not just mine.”

But the hype and excitement isn’t just about Modi, says Devesh Kapur, the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a signal from the Indian-American community that it has ‘arrived.’ There’s a part of it which is about Modi, the rock-star politician. But it’s also a signal by the community to the politicians here in the U.S. to take them seriously.”

Not that everyone is celebrating Modi’s visit. While the audience inside cheered and applauded him, a small group of protesters outside Madison Square Garden on Sunday chanted anti-Modi slogans, questioning his record on religious minorities. And last week, shortly before he touched down in the U.S., a New York court issued a summons for him to respond to a lawsuit accusing him of rights abuses connected to the 2002 Gujarat riots. Though officials from both India and the U.S. stressed that he had immunity as a visiting head of government, the summons was an awkward reminder of Modi’s controversial past as the White House prepared to roll out the red carpet for the new Indian leader.

TIME India

Dark Moment for Indian Free Speech After Prominent Journalist Gets Threatened

Siddharth Varadarajan
Siddharth Varadarajan, speaking at a literature festival in Janipur, India, Jan. 20 2012. Ramesh Sharma—India Today/Getty Images

A recent attack on an employee of journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, a critic of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, highlights the proscription of free speech in the country

Late on Feb. 23, the caretaker of the South Delhi apartment occupied by Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist, and Varadarajan’s wife, Nandini Sundar, a sociologist, was on his way back from nearby shops when he was accosted by a group of four men. They wanted to know if he worked for Varadarajan. When he answered in the affirmative, they began assaulting him, pulling him by his belt, kicking him in the stomach and punching him in the face. The men left the caretaker with a message: Tell your boss to watch what he says on television. They also mouthed vague threats connected to Sundar’s attempts to challenge alleged human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. They did not identify themselves, nor, Varadarajan told TIME, did they indicate who sent them.

It’s impossible, from what we know, to assign blame. India is weeks away from national polls and accounts of the evening assault outside Varadarajan’s apartment have highlighted his reputation as a critic of Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate and self-described Hindu nationalist. Since 2001, Modi has been the Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where rioting along religious lines in 2002 led to the death of least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Varadarajan has written about the riots at length. He has been critical of Modi. But he has also been critical of the BJP’s chief political foe, the Congress.

Whatever the affiliations of the caretaker’s assailants, the events of Feb. 23 feel different from the assault on Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History—withdrawn by Penguin India in the face of a lawsuit by a small Hindu outfit—or the numerous other attacks on free expression in India in recent times. The physical violence—and the implied threat of more to come if Varadarajan doesn’t change his tune (though to what exactly was not made clear)—seems to mark out this particular attempt to pummel free speech. But here’s the truly depressing part: they share the same, illiberal context.

Consider, for instance, the choices facing the electorate as India gears up for what will be the largest democratic ballot in human history. If, as opinion polls suggest, Modi were to become Prime Minister, liberals in the country fear that voices that deviate from the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist hymn sheet might be silenced. And it true’s that, during his tenure in Gujarat, state authorities banned at least two books and one play. Among them was Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld’s book on the father of the nation, banned, it’s widely thought, because of reports suggesting that it portrayed Gandhi as bisexual. (The author insisted otherwise.) “The abnormal analysis about Mahatma Gandhi made by Joseph Lelyveld has hurt the feelings of not only Gujaratis but of everyone in India who possess modesty and wisdom,” Modi wrote on his blog in 2011, insisting that “our anger and rebuke are natural.” The book hadn’t even been released in India the time.

But let’s say the pre-election surveys have it wrong; that the BJP isn’t in the ascendant; and that, come polling day, the incumbent Congress-led coalition isn’t booted out of office. Were this to happen, the Congress would likely name Rahul Gandhi—the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Prime Ministers—as the nation’s chief executive. In a recent speech, he said his party wasn’t in the business of “subverting democratic institutions.” No: it sought solutions to the nation’s problems via “peaceful, democratic and constitutional means.” A banner that popped up when you clicked through to the party’s website earlier this month pushed a related message: “Don’t let others threaten our freedom of speech and individual liberty. Vote Congress.” Which sounds encouraging, until you consider the historical evidence.

The proscription of free speech has a depressingly long history in independent India but perhaps the best-known instance was the decision in 1988 by India’s Finance Ministry to ban The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Fearful of offending the country’s Muslims, the government of Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, moved against the book well before Iran’s theocratic leadership bared its fangs—and 25 years on, The Satanic Verses is still not legally available in India. More recently, in 2010, lawyers for Rahul’s mother and the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, threatened legal action over a Spanish author’s fictionalized account of her life. And in January, a defamation case filed by a former Civil Aviation Minister in the Congress-led government resulted in a settlement that saw Bloomsbury India pull copies of a book about the country’s struggling state-owned airline.

There are other examples, involving other political parties, other states and private individuals. They don’t always agree; in fact, they’re often strident in their opposition to one another’s views. But, sadly, they seem united in their belief that the way to deal with differing, critical or otherwise uncomfortable views is by attempting to muzzle those who have the temerity to voice them.

TIME Ukraine

Kiev Rocked by Violence

Ukraine Protests
Protesters reinforce barricades near the Dynamo Kiev soccer stadium by lighting fires as an additional line of defense. Ross McDonnell

Ukraine's capital is shaken by confrontations as the government seeks to steer the former Soviet nation away from Europe and deeper into Russia's shadow

After bubbling for two months, mass demonstrations in Ukraine against President Viktor Yanukovych came to a boil on Jan. 22, when three protesters were killed in clashes with security forces. Behind the violence was a set of antiprotest laws rushed through parliament. Yanukovych had sought to clamp down on popular discontent over his decision to deepen the former Soviet state’s ties with Russia. But the legislation had the opposite effect, triggering fiery confrontations between protesters and phalanxes of riot police that left parts of Kiev, the capital, looking like a war zone.

The latest skirmishes reveal long-standing tensions among Ukraine’s 45 million people over how to orient their country’s economic, foreign-affairs and security policies. Should they look west, forging closer relations with European democracies, or should they embrace their former masters in Moscow? The tensions are reinforced by history, geography and language: Russian is the dominant tongue in the country’s eastern regions, whereas most in the western half speak Ukrainian. They remain unresolved 22 years after Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union.

The previous government in Kiev, led by President Viktor Yushchenko, had sought to bring the country out of Moscow’s shadow. But that course was reversed after the 2010 elections by Yanukovych, whose power base lies in the eastern regions.

In November, Yanukovych spurned an agreement, years in the making, that would have led to closer trade and political ties with the European Union. Instead, he seized a financial lifeline from Russian President Vladimir Putin: a $15 billion economic package, agreed to in December, that saved Kiev’s cash-strapped government from default. Taking Moscow’s money was also a statement of intent, one that enraged the pro-Europe demonstrators who had already begun to appear in the capital’s streets.

While Yanukovych is standing by his decision to embrace Russia, the recent violence forced him to make some overtures to the protesters, including an offer to install opposition lawmaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. The proposals were rejected, with opposition leaders–including former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko–reiterating demands for early elections and a closer relationship with the E.U.

A second set of concessions, which included repealing much of the antiprotest legislation and accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, followed on Jan. 28, but these steps are not likely to appease the protesters, especially members of radical right-wing groups.

Photographer Ross McDonnell, who arrived in Kiev on Jan. 23, says the mood on the streets–captured in these searing images–is one of stubborn defiance. “You get the sense that the people won’t be satisfied until the government is toppled,” he says. The escalation in violence has bred a “sense of collectiveness” in the protest camps. “There is a feeling that the movement has come too far at this point to not claim victory.”



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