London/New Delhi: For the first time in a public setting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced questions Thursday on intolerance in India and the 2002 Gujarat riots, ducking the latter but insisting in clear and forthright terms that incidents of violence would not be tolerated in any part of India and would be met with the full force of the law.

At a joint press conference here with his UK counterpart David Cameron, the British government followed its usual convention of allowing two visiting and two local journalists to ask questions.

A BBC reporter referred to recent incidents of intolerance and asked why India was becoming an increasingly intolerant place.

Modi replied that India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi and its culture does not accept anything that is against basic social values. “India does not accept intolerance even if it is one or two or three incidents. Whether a single incident is significant for a country of 1.25 billion people does not matter. For us every incident is serious. We do not tolerate it. The law acts strongly and will continue to do so.”

There was no trace in Modi’s answer of the equivocation and truculence with which BJP leaders in India, himself included, have responded to similar questions in India. At home, government and ruling party spokespersons have dismissed fears of rising intolerance as a “manufactured revolt” engineered by the BJP’s ideological and political foes.

Modi insisted India is a vibrant democracy which under its Constitution “provides protection to all citizens, their lives and thoughts.” “We are committed to it,” he said.

The next question, posed by an Indian reporter, was about whether Modi and Cameron had discussed the issue of terrorism, but it was the third reporter – from the Guardian – who posed the most pointed questions of the session.

UK travel ban

He asked Cameron, who was standing next t0 the Indian PM, how comfortable he felt receiving Modi to the UK given the fact that during his (Cameron’s) first tenure, Modi was not permitted to visit UK because of his record as Gujarat’s chief minister.

The Guardian reporter said there would later be a referendum in the UK on whether the country should stay in the European Union and asked Modi how India would react if Britain were to leave the EU. He also asked Modi what he would say to protestors on the streets of London who claimed he did not deserve the respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy given his record as chief minister of Gujarat – a reference to allegations that he did not act to prevent the killing of Muslims in riots that shook his state in 2002.

Cameron said, “I am pleased to welcome Mr Modi. He comes here with an enoromous and historic mandate. As far as the other issue is concerned, there were legal proceedings.” Those were a matter of the past, Cameron said, while in the discussions “the British government and I” have had with the Indian Prime Minister, we have focused on how the two countries can work together in the future.”

Modi first answered the Guardian’s question on Britain and the EU by noting that the UK was India’s door to Europe and would always be so. He then said he wished to “set the record straight” about the “other issue” raised by the reporter. “In 2003, when I came here, I got an enthusiastic reception then also. The UK had never barred me from coming here. There was no bar. It is a wrong perception. I want to set it right. It’s just that I never had the occasion to come here before now.”

Modi chose not to answer the question on the perception of his handling of the 2002 riots.

The US administration canceled Modi’s visa in 2004, after the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the elections, and the British government cooled to him soon after. But before the 2014 elections, with the media in India already projecting Modi as the frontrunner, the British High Commissioner visited Gandhinagar and met Modi in a signal that London was changing its view.

Rare interaction

Thursday’s interaction is only the second time in 18 months that Modi has publicly fielded questions from reporters at a formal press conference, the first time being his joint press briefing with US President Barack Obama in January when one Indian and one American reporter were allowed to ask a question. Though he has given a television interview to CNN and a print interview to Hindustan Times, he has never allowed journalists to put questions to him on the record. The only exception was his recent answer to a question by Ananda Bazar Patrika‘s Delhi bureau chief Jayanta Ghoshal on the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri by a mob agitated by rumours that he had eaten beef. “The Dadri incident … is sad and unwarranted (‘dukhjanak  aur avaanchhniya’),” he told Ghoshal. “But what is the Central government’s relation with these incidents?”

“The BJP never supported such kind of incidents. The opposition is raising the bogey of communalism against the BJP, but by doing this, are they themselves not engaging in the politics of polarisation?”, he said, adding: “Such a debate has taken place in the past too. The BJP always opposed pseudo-secularism. Now again this debate is taking place in the face of unfortunate social malaise”.

In contrast, his answer in London to the question of intolerance did not involve any finger-pointing at the opposition or “pseudo-secularists”.

With PTI inputs

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