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22 September, 2019 00:00 00 AM


Howdy Modi?

Controversy precedes Modi’s much hyped US visit
Kumkum Chadha
Howdy Modi?

It is the Howdy Modi season in India and perhaps in the US too what with Prime Minister Narendra Modi packing his bags to leave for the US for an action-packed visit full of challenges and potential. Challenges because protests are in the offing following India’s move to abrogate Article 370, taking away the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and stripping it of its statehood.  Pitched against this is the decision  of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to confer a global award on Modi.

Potential because the award is being conferred for the PM's ambitious pet project, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Clean India Mission. The mission is among the few projects that PM Modi launched in 2014: his first term in office.

The initiative has helped in improving lives and living standards of hundreds and hundreds of poor people in India particularly the women who for years had no access to toilets. It is also a sad commentary that for decades no government thought it necessary to address this one basic issue till Modi zeroed in on it.

It cannot be denied that the Modi government has bettered the lives of many in India with his social-reach projects that include constructing toilets, building homes and providing gas connections to many households.  According to the Foundation, the award, nomenclatured as the Goalkeepers Global Goals Award celebrates an elected official who has promoted sustainable development goals.

In the case of Modi it is in recognition of his initiative in building millions of new toilets in India since 2014.

The Gates Foundation  focuses on health and anti-poverty programs. The Foundation is owned and funded by billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates.

That Bill Gates is in sync with Modi’s schemes is evident from the fact that he has in past lauded several of Modi’s social initiatives including  the mega health scheme  Ayushman Bharat that aims to provide free healthcare to over 10 crore people. Last year he had supported the Aadhaar scheme saying the Aadhaar technology does not pose any privacy issue. There was a controversy about the absence of data protection and breach of privacy in the Aadhar scheme.

But then controversy and Modi go hand in hand. That  Modi is a polarizing figure is a given. There are many who see him as a strong and decisive leader while others accuse him of being authoritarian and anti-Muslim.

Modi’s  role  in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which thousands of Muslims were slaughtered during his tenure as chief minister had led the  US government to deny him a visa and he was unable to enter the US till he was elected Prime Minister in 2014. That changed everything and the untouchableModi was walking over the red carpet the US government laid out to welcome him to the country that had once slammed their doors on him.

This time around too, controversy precedes Modi’s much hyped US visit. Human rights groups and three Nobel Peace Prize winners have lashed out at the Foundation for conferring a prestigious award on a controversial person like Modi. In a letter sent to  the Gates Foundation , the Nobel Laureates said that under Mr. Modi’s leadership, “India has descended into dangerous and deadly chaos that has consistently undermined human rights, democracy.’’ “This is particularly troubling to us as the stated mission of your foundation is to preserve life and fight inequity,” they stated. The letter is signed by Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland; Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, a Yemeni journalist and politician; and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and political activist.

A few celebrities too have taken a stand, namely the British actor and model Jameela Jamil and the rapper and actor Riz Ahmed. Both have pulled out of participating in the awards ceremony.

Earlier, demonstrators with Stop Genocide, a project of the American human rights group Justice For All, marched to the Foundation headquarters in Seattle and delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, asking the foundation to rescind the award. Some of the protesters were seen wearing  “I Stand with Kashmir” T-shirts.

The petition called Modi names, and referred to the 2002 Gujarat riots, Kashmir, the Nation Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and attacks on minorities.

On Tuesday, a group of south Asian Americans working in philanthropy wrote an open letter to the Gates Foundation alleging that Modi had effectively confined millions to their communities, and urging the organisation to rescind the award.

In an open letter it was alleged that  “Modi has placed 8 million people in Jammu and Kashmir under house arrest, blocked communications and media coverage to the outside world, detained thousands of people including children and denied basic benefits”.

“The award will signal the international community’s willingness to overlook, and remain silent, in the face of the Indian government’s brazen violations of human rights principles.”

The Foundation, however,  stood its ground and  said it respects the petitioners’ views, but that Modi would receive the award for providing 500 million people in India safer sanitation.

The Gates Foundation said in a statement that Modi was being recognised for “the progress India is making in improving sanitation, as part of its drive toward achievement of the UN sustainable development goals”. “Globally, sanitation-related diseases kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year,” said the statement.

“Yet despite its importance, sanitation has not received significant attention. A lot of governments are not willing to talk about it, in part because there are not easy solutions.

“Before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do. There is still a long way to go, but the impacts of access to sanitation in India are already being realised. The Swachh Bharat mission can serve as a model for other countries around the world that urgently need to improve access to sanitation for the world’s poorest.”

In India, the Swachh Bharat programme, is under the lens because while the government claims that  90% of Indians have access to toilets, there are reports of the newly-built toilets remaining  unused because of poor access to water.  The award is only one and seemingly a small part of Modi’s action packed visit to the US which begins this weekend. During his stay, Modi will meet oil executives, speak at the United Nations and attend an Indian diaspora event in Houston called Howdy Modi:  a community summit hosted by Texas India Forum (TIF) for Narendra Modi.  Over 50,000 are reported to have registered for the event which will be the largest gathering for an invited foreign leader visiting the United States other than the Pope. The “Howdy Modi” summit has been organized with the support of more than 1,000 volunteers and 650 Texas-based Welcome Partner organizations.

The term 'Howdy' is a short form of  “How do you do?", used commonly in southwestern United States. The event has been designed as a greeting to PM Modi.

The good news is that US President Donald Trump will also join Prime Minister Narendra Modi's as “a special gesture” at the 'Howdy, Modi!' mega diaspora event:  the first time that a US President will be making an appearance at an Indian community event with the Indian Prime Minister:  “a maiden appearance of US President in an Indian community event with me, and marks a new milestone in our outreach to them” is  how Modi described it.

The Texas India Forum said the "Howdy Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures" Community Summit attendees represent 48 states, coming together to emphasize the shared values and aspirations of two great nations whose partnership is important to global peace, prosperity, and human progress.

The flip side, however, is that protests have been planned ahead of the event by fringe groups reported to be backed by Pakistan. According to a tweet bus pick-ups from several locations have been organised for protestors.

Back home in India Congress PresidentCongress leader Rahul Gandhi used the term to  criticize  Modi over the economic slowdown in the country, while referring to the "Howdy Modi" event in the US.

In a tweet, Rahul Gandhi said, "Howdy economy doin', Mr Modi? Ain’t too good it seems."

The term has caught on and the Congress is using it amply to hit out at Modi .Unmindful Modi seems  all set to take the US  by a storm during his week-long visit being dubbed as HowdyUS trip in some quarters.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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