More than a year after delivering a speech to a packed crowd of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a similar performance in the San Francisco Bay Area this past Sunday.
The event drew 18,000 attendants to the SAP Center in San Jose. The Indo American Community of West Coast, a newly formed group responsible for hosting the event released a statement saying, “From taxi drivers and farmers to professionals and CEOs of large companies, the excitement being felt in the Silicon Valley is unprecedented.”
Modi’s visit also elicited excitement among tech giants such as Adobe, Google and Tesla where he was invited on campus tours and also at Facebook where he participated in a live streamed Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg prior to the SAP event. His Digital India plans and technology made up much of the conversation.
What exactly is Digital India? It’s e-governance. An initiative of the Indian government to integrate its departments and its citizens by expanding internet access, developing online tools for better government performance and improving accessibility of government services electronically. However, his administration has come under scrutiny over the past year for censoring internet and media freedoms.
Not all were excited about his visit and his plans for a digital India. A month ago, a widely circulated letter by academic scholars of South Asia offered a scathing critique of Modi, much to the outrage of Modi fans everywhere. The letter highlighted the inadequacies of Digital India and brought up Modi’s troubled political past.
Kamala Visweswaran, a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego was one of the signees of the letter, “I felt it was important to ask for an actual discussion of Modi’s record as Prime Minister and to register concern about freedom of expression and privacy issues under his administration. Before our letter appeared, there was almost no critical engagement with the broader issues surrounding Modi’s visit.”
Visweswaran and her colleagues also pressed Silicon Valley leaders to not fall folly on their own rhetoric of accountability. “We urge those who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions,” the letter stated.
Modi, a longtime Hindu nationalist was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when one of the worst religious riots in the state occurred. Hundreds, mainly Muslims, were killed by Hindu mobs. Security forces were famously slow to intervene.
Activists held a large protest on Sunday outside the SAP Center where Modi addressed a mostly Indian American crowd. The Alliance for Justice Accountability or AJA the entity behind the protests, has also invested heavily in anti-Modi billboards all over the Bay Area and launched #ModiFail, a campaign to surface grievances against Modi.
“The protests leading up to, and including Sunday’s rally, aim to send a clear message to Mr. Modi that there is no statute of limitations on genocide: the injustices that happened on his watch cannot be forgotten through pomp and propaganda,” said Khalid Azam, an organizer with AJA.
Author Shwanika Narayan is a freelance journalist currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Twitter @shwanika