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India: Graham Staines to Gulbarg Society - What Modi doesn’t know

by Dilip, 18 April 2014

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The whole BJP campaign has focused on Narendra Modi as the Man Who Knows It All. That’s the gist of what Rahul Gandhi alleged when the BJP’s manifesto was missing in action. The Man was the Manifesto. So what was the point of poring over Murli Manohar Joshi’s fine print. Modi has all the answers. Modi knows all. If Rahul was trying to alert his audience to the dangers of a Modi-who-knows-all, now we have a glimpse of the Modi who does not know. In a rare television interview, Modi was asked by an audience member if he would take steps to ensure no churches are broken down if he becomes prime minister. Modi replied “I have never heard of such incidents taking place.” 

This is mindboggling. Whatever one thinks of the activities of missionaries one would have to live in a particular bubble of self-denial to not remember Graham Staines and his sons being burned alive in Odisha in 1999. A Bajrang Dal activist was sentenced to life in prison for that. And if that was Odisha, far away from his Gujarat, it’s not like his state has not seen any church violence either. “How can he forget the gruesome attacks on tribal Christians in Gujarat’s Dangs district in 1998 during the NDA regime when members of the right-wing cadres burned down churches?” asked Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Atal Behari Vajpayee, then the prime minister had visited the district in response. No one is asking Modi to take responsibility for something that happened before his time.

But his glib, almost dismissive response shows a man who can just shrug away inconvenient truths. He could have asked for more specific details. Or he could have said something boilerplate like he was against all violence aimed at all religions. If that not-knowing is just pretence, that’s deplorable. If it’s true ignorance, that’s shocking. This is not about confusing Chandraguptas from centuries ago. This is current affairs. Either way it does not show the man who wants to be prime minister in a reassuring light. 

But then this not-knowing is an old Modi ploy. As Rahul Jacob points out in the Business Standard when the Special Investigation Team asked Modi in 2010 about whether he had spoken to Jaydeep Patel of the VHP about whether to turn the bodies of the Godhra victims over to the families or to Mr. Patel for what would eventually become a grisly parade, Modi replied he did not remember and he did "not know the details as to how and when the bodies reached Ahmedabad".

He has taken refuge behind not knowing again when it came to the Gulbarg Society massacre in 2002. Zakia Jafri, of course, claims her husband called Modi and pleaded for help. Then he put the phone down and said “No help will come.” Soon he was dead, stripped and hacked by a mob. But Modi again claims he did not know. As Manoj Mitta points out in an interview with Firstpost about his book The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi & Godhra, “The most inconvenient evidence ignored by the SIT in this context was Modi’s claim to have been unaware of the massacre for as long as five hours after it had all been over.” The Modi who does not know might actually be cause for more alarm than the Modi who knows all.

Vrinda Grover: Kandhamal: The Law Must Change its Course

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