The 'M' madness

I have been covering the ceremonies, events, protests and clichés surrounding Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit in New York and New Jersey for the past three days.

I thought of writing this blog after one of my photos of protest that was not covered by any media was heavily shared on social media in India and sparked a heated debate.

India is the world's largest democracy and Indian Americans consists one of the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States among other Asian nations. According to a report by Pew Research Center, Asians Americans have a pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work and place more value on marriage, parenting and careers.

I could second that when I met hundreds of Indian American supporters waiting in the queue outside Madison Square Garden. The crowd consisted of doctors, surgeons, finance professionals, scientists, researchers, IT and software professionals, engineers, businessmen to name a few.

But some of these educated people were also highly emotional. I witnessed explosive arguments and almost fist fights between supporters and protesters. Had the NYPD police presence had not been stringent, there could have been violence I assume. I also saw a few American protesters carrying posters. One of the poster said “India is not a Hindu State”. At some point I saw some Modi supporters telling them that they don’t understand Indian culture and that the law of ‘Karma’ comes from Hinduism. 

Living in America I have often had Americans ask me if I was a Hindi. It’s almost equivalent to asking someone if he was a Urdu ! Some do not understand that Hindi is a language and people who follow Hinduism are called Hindus. The ‘I’ and the ‘U’ can be confusing I agree.

I met Indian senior journalist  Rajdeep Sardesai briefly before he was heckled and roughed up allegedly by a group of Modi supporters. When I met him in the morning before Modi’s speech, he was posing with the supporters at their request. I was overwhelmed and for a moment thought he was a celebrity like Shah Rukh Khan. I know many international photojournalists and editors personally who work for the biggest publications in the world, but have not seen many pose when they are at work. I found it unprofessional. After the incident of Sardesai reached India, I spoke to a friend who has worked with him for over ten years. My friend told me that Sardesai could be a celebrity in a way but said “From the office peon to the person who served him chai, to the CEO in our company, he tries his best to take care of everyone and treat everyone with love and respect. That's Rajdeep for you.”

When Modi’s speech started, I went to Times Square and saw a sea of people. The place had the similar energy and enthusiasm when I covered the Obama re-elections in 2012. Not everyone in the crowd were Modi supporters, but many just came to witness the historic moment. When the Indian national anthem started live via EarthCam TV on the giant screen, the crowd put with their hands on their chest began to sing loudly. Some even had tears in their eyes.

During Modi’s speech there were protesters from two organisations who took turns to protest at a designated place given to them by the city outside Madison Square Garden. The first group to protest was by members of Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA). The protesters were attempting to hold Modi responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots through a US lawsuit.

When I was taking their photograph one of the angry protestor asked me if I had taken permission for a photograph. To which I informed that I was within the framework of normal street photography in New York and am doing nothing against the law. She didn’t say anything after that but I realised many of the women covered their faces from the camera with their posters. There were also some non-muslims and non-Indians in the crowd protesting against Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots. What happened in Gujarat was dreadful. Hundreds of Muslim homes, businesses and lives were destroyed.  The Supreme Court verdict said that there was not enough evidence to prove Modi's direct involvement in the Gujarat massacre. But the protestors at Madison Square don’t believe the verdict and still question Modi’s leadership during the riots.

Modi’s speech created a lot of good impression on the supporters. I met many smiling faces when they came out of the auditorium and the crowd applauded Modi’s three key ideas and were hopeful for a better India.  The supporters had food packets with Modi’s image imprinted on it.  There were 20 thousand food packets that were sponsored by the Patel brothers of Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks of Jersey City, NJ. I went to meet the owners later at Jersey City. The restaurant had a festive feel and were distributing food packets to everyone who passed by them. I noticed at the shelves that they had packets of snacks officially named after Modi which they launched two years back. They are called “Modi Magic” and “Modi Mix”.

Manisha Patel, wife of joint owner Raju Patel spent sleepless nights packing 20 thousand food packets alongwith other family members. “We love to feed people and this is a big moment for us to celebrate. Modi is the pride of Gujarat and India and we are hopeful that he will work for the betterment of the country", said the Patels.

I also went to Jackson Heights in New York where a huge population of the Indian community reside. Patel Brothers, the largest South Asian chain of catering to Indian groceries had a huge poster of Modi. I met the owner Harshad Patel, 49, who hails from the birthplace of Modi. Patel migrated to US with his family in 1980 and set up the store. Many of his family members who live in Gujarat are closely associated with the BJP and one of his cousins is a close associate of Modi and their friendship go way back when Modi started his career as a member of RSS.  

The photograph of the truck carrying Modi’s poster was a part of the North American Sikh Alliance, who were also protesting outside Madison Square Garden. The organisation was protesting the policies of India for minority communities from 1984 to 2002. When I asked a member about the role of Modi in 1984 riots, he told me that Congress and BJP were all the same and they were angry that the American government allowed Modi to visit US. They were there to seek justice for the 1984 riots that killed thousands of Sikhs and question the role of the Congress government and Rajiv Gandhi who they think didn’t do enough to stop the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

Whatever maybe the case, I can say one thing and that is Modi created a lot of positive and negative energies amongst the Indian community here. I saw a lot of tourists ask who Modi was when they came to Times Square and other passer by turn around with inquisitive look when they noticed hundreds of people wear Modi t-shirts.