‘Houston, we have a problem – Shahzad Chaudhry


Houston is the fastest emerging hub of Indian immigrants to the United States (US). Of the 150,000 Indian-Americans in the city, 50,000 gathered at the NRG Stadium to say “hi” to Modi and give him the opportunity to leverage the over 2.4 million Indian-Americans, largely Democrats, to vote Republican in the 2020 presidential elections.

Trump salivated at the freebie offer and lumped it to score some of his own brownie points. There is no free lunch in the US of A, and hence Trump ended up lobbying a freebie in return with the mention of “radical Islamic terrorism” which Modi happily lapped by hitting the proverbial ball out of the park. Modi thus scored a few himself, with the audiences back home. After all, it is rare that an American President rallies with a foreign leader on American soil in a typically ethnic setting. But there you are. That is what Trump is and that is how he will conduct himself. Give him a whiff and he will make a deal of it.

The same Trump met Imran Khan the following day and lavished profuse praise. He also had a word or two criticising Modi’s language “in his presence” which he thought was overly aggressive. Trump reiterated his July offer to mediate and arbitrate. So really, he paid put to Modi’s cheap exclaimer “All is well” to the equally cheap “Howdy, Modi!” title of the Houston meet. All is not well Mr Modi and that is why your partner-on-stage is offering to mediate and arbitrate. That is the message that must endure and that Pakistan has the challenge of keeping alive.

There were two other statements that should not have gone unnoticed: the first by Congressman Steny Hoyer — one of those who spoke at the event — explaining democracy to Modi in the words of Gandhi (Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin and Modi’s newest hero wasn’t mentioned) by enabling the weakest the same power as the strongest, and insisting that Indian democracy be held to the golden rule. The second was a broadside, right in the ribs if indeed some had shame, when Trump pitching to sell American military equipment to India, reminded Modi that American-made equipment was the world’s best, “as India best knows”. A hush swept over the otherwise noisy crowd. Many may have feared more coming their way, but Trump relented. After all, he was there looking for votes.

Back home Modi needed Trump’s endorsement to show his relevance even as the Indian economy falters and as he and his government are being indicted for his sleight of hand against the powerless Kashmiris. He has attempted to deceive the world by abrogating Kashmir’s special status and has been caught for his insidiousness. He was audacious enough to invoke this cancellation of the Constitutional Article as a feather in his cap while the diaspora cheered his fascist aggravation. This, in a land that is the model of democracy and where Indian immigrants thrive in. There couldn’t have been a bigger paradox. A claimant to one of the world’s two largest democracies shunning the rights of a segment of people especially protected under international covenants in broad daylight, even as fascism spawns at the hands of homegrown religious fanatics.

Give it to him, though. Modi and his cohorts were somehow able to ask the US President out. Mimicking Imran Khan from his Washington rally in July, Modi had indeed gone one over but what he got in return was not entirely something that will resonate well. Already he is being targeted back home for going overboard with Trump and placing too much hope in such undignified grovelling for Trumpian favour. By some counts, almost half the size of numbers present inside the arena agitated outside of it against Indian repression and denial of fundamental rights to its minorities. Kashmir continues to be closed and under lockdown. Their chants would have surely reached inside. They too were potential voters.

The two strategic partners also forgot why and against whom were they strategically partnering. It isn’t Pakistan, for sure. Not a word was said on China to reaffirm the “vision” enclosed in such a strategic alliance. Perhaps the world perceives wrongly; it isn’t about China. For the US, maybe, but not for India. She under Modi just cannot rise above Pakistan. That tells you the level where India is currently held back at. A country of 1.3 billion seeped in widespread deprivation and poverty, whose prime minister must make it a point to note on another country’s soil that lesser number of people now defecate in the open, and whose poverty index sits atop those with the largest below the poverty line, just could not rise above its pettiness. And against whom? Hapless and now stateless Kashmiris, Indian Muslims, and Pakistan. Talk of indignity exemplified through pea-sized brains in a huge shell called India.

Modi in Houston was, in reality, explaining himself and India to the world and to Trump. His rationale was superficial and his ruse a convenient subterfuge but he was naked in how he usurped and annexed a people that were already under his occupation. And he needed to explain himself. He may have attempted at deflecting the shame into frivolous allegations but the truth wasn’t lost on the world at large. It was an equal shame for those who cheered at his blatant shamelessness in the name of Hindu exclusivity and Saffronisation of India. Democracy was damned and Fascism ruled in such behaviour. But Modi has a lot to explain and what he offered was empty.

His plea that he would now direct investment and development into IOJ&K was as transparent. He needs to refer back to Gulzari Lal Nanda, India’s home minister in the 1960s, who declared in the Indian Parliament on a discussion to abrogate Article 370 that “the article was a tunnel that connected Srinagar to Delhi through which there is free passage without hindrance — the innards from it cleaned out long ago. Hence an empty shell”. And a convenient cover. It is amazing that what couldn’t travel through that tunnel for the last seven decades will now, after Modi, the RSS and their BJP have blown the final cover in a blatant act of aggressive adventurism challenging the combined conscience and collective wisdom of the rest of the world which thought differently.

Modi will invest and develop occupied Kashmir but only after it is Saffronised or on the verge of it. His tools are demographic engineering through ethnic cleansing and genocide which is a dominating fear today in the Muslim majority Valley and a growing concern as the curfew is lifted and the Kashmiris agitate for their right to self-determination. This is what is going on behind the iron-curtain in Kashmir and is a clear and present danger. And this is the message that IK will need to take to the world on September 27. The threat of a nuclear war comes later.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2019.