Last week I was reminded of the reason why I endorsed Narendra Modi in this column when he first became prime minister in 2014. I believed then that he had been unjustly maligned in the mainstream (read liberal, Leftist) media as the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’ for something that has happened under other chief ministers who have totally escaped censure. The only pogrom by the Indian State against a community was against the Sikhs. Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. The ‘liberals’ who ensured that Modi was denied a visa to enter the United States, until he became prime minister, never held Rajiv to account.
Now they are at it again. Next week Modi is due to be honoured in New York by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the Goalkeepers Global Goals Award. In an interview to The Hindustan Times recently, Gates explained that it was because of the Swachh Bharat campaign’s success in building the infrastructure of sanitation across rural India that Modi was receiving the award. He said, “The quality of life and the number of diseases caused by poor sanitation are terrible and yet a lot of governments are unwilling to talk about it because it isn’t easy to fix and it takes time. It’s a topic people just don’t want to talk about.”
It is because we in India did not want to talk about it that until the Swachh Bharat campaign Indians continued to ‘defecate everywhere’. When Vidia Naipaul pointed this out in An Area of Darkness, he was reviled for being ‘anti-India’. But, when Modi said in his first speech from the Red Fort that it was time for this ancient Indian practice to stop, we had to take notice. Had he not lent his personal support to the movement to stop open defecation, it would not have been possible for the Government of India to declare on Gandhi Jayanti this year that every district in India is now ODF or open defecation free. Of course, there are those who continue to defecate in the open, but as someone who has tracked Swachh Bharat carefully, I believe that the successes of the programme are more to be celebrated than whining about its inevitable, small failures.
The ‘liberals’ campaigning to get the Gates Foundation to cancel Modi’s award could not care less. A group that calls itself ‘Stop Genocide’ delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures at the headquarters of the Gates Foundation in Seattle some days ago demanding that the award be ‘rescinded’. They said Modi’s human rights record was reason enough for this. The charges now go beyond what happened in Gujarat in 2002. Modi is accused of violating human rights in Kashmir and of allowing his supporters to abuse the human rights of Muslims through vigilante violence. The National Register of Citizens is also listed as something designed to harass Muslims.
Let me clarify here that I disapprove of petty officials deciding who is a citizen and who is not. It is not as if millions of people are flocking to India’s penurious shores in search of a better life. Those who come are only the most wretched and desperate people on the planet, and if they find hope in India, we should be happy. Let me also clarify that I believe there are now distinct signs that the Modi government is beginning to lose the peace in Kashmir. I cannot understand at all why political leaders who have risked their lives and political careers to support India’s case in Kashmir should be detained under repressive and ugly laws.
Let me also say that my support for Modi in this column has never been blind. I have been so critical of him on so many issues that when I last ran into him at the Independence Day party in Rashtrapati Bhawan, he gave me an icy stare and was warm and friendly to the other journalists who greeted him. Coomi Kapoor (Contributing Editor, The Indian Express) can bear witness because she was there and he chatted happily to her in Gujarati while giving me the icy stare. So I am no blind bhakt as some of my Leftist colleagues like to think I am.
But, I cannot for the life of me understand what Modi’s so-called crimes in the human rights department have to do with sanitation.
It is my view that sanitation should be considered a fundamental human right. And, if the Swachh Bharat movement wants to prove that it deserves this award then it should immediately start a campaign to end manual scavenging and send to jail municipal contractors who exploit destitute, desperate people to clean city sewers by hand. The Supreme Court described these sewers as gas chambers recently. Swachh Bharat must as its next step declare that it will end the truly shameful practice of manual scavenging in all forms by October 2, 2020.
(Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh)