Boris Johnson’s visit to inaugurate a JCB factory during his two-day tour of India has been dubbed “tone deaf” amid the outcry over the destruction of mostly Muslim homes in the country using the company’s bulldozers.
The British prime minister landed in India on Thursday, a day after municipal authorities in Delhi moved in with JCB bulldozers to raze homes and properties of mainly Muslim residents in an area of the capital where religious riots broke out over the weekend.
The local authorities have denied that the demolitions were linked to the communal violence and said there was no discrimination involved in the drive, but the incident has led to an uproar and many observers noted the unfortunate timing of Mr Johnson’s JCB factory visit.
Mr Johnson’s first stop in India was at the city of Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, where he was taken to the Sabarmati Ashram, the former home of Mahatma Gandhi. He was photographed using Gandhi’s traditional charkha (spinning wheel).
But it was the second stop on the trip — the inauguration of a new plant for the UK-based Joseph Cyril Bamford Excavators Limited (JCB) company — that drew attention to Mr Johnson’s visit from a number of agitated Indian commentators.
Mr Johnson had boarded an Indian Air Force Chinook helicopter to visit JCB’s new factory in Vadodara, owned by major Tory donor Lord Bamford.
Political commentators in India pointed out that bulldozers and diggers manufactured by the company, which also produces agricultural and construction equipment, were used to demolish houses during a high-profile incident in Jahangirpuri, in north Delhi, the day before.
JCB logos featured prominently in photographs from Thursday of tearful residents scrambling to retrieve personal items among the debris of their homes.
“What a bulldozer of an irony! British PM @BorisJohnson will inaugurate the JCB plant in Halol that will manufacture bulldozers on a day when Supreme Court is taking cognisance of the constitutional limits of the administration’s use of the machine. #jahagirpuri,” Sanjay Kapoor, editor of India’s Hardnews magazine wrote.
“JCB’s website proudly notes that it is used for construction, agriculture, recycling and power generation. In India, it is being used to disposess the poor and inflict collective humiliation upon Muslims. Hope that friends in the UK will make hold their PM to account,” Alishan Jafri, a Muslim journalist in India who writes for The Wire, tweeted.
“Seems like @BorisJohnson’s visit is now turning increasingly tone-deaf. Visiting a plant of the JCB company while its bulldozers are being used to illegally terrorise Muslims? Someone at @UKinIndia failed to do their job. Only way Johnson can salvage this trip is by speaking up,” Mohamed Zeeshan, a leading Muslim columnist in India, wrote.
“As many such images emerged from Delhi, it is ironical that the UK PM @BorisJohnson will inaugurate a JCB factory in Gujarat today,” wrote Danish Khan, another Indian journalist, sharing the image of the JCB bulldozer used in the demolitions in north Delhi.
Amnesty India called his visit “not only ignorant but his silence on the incident is deafening”.
The demolition drive by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which is under the control of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi, carried on for some time on Wednesday morning despite a stay order issued by the country’s top court.
Residents and rights activists alleged that the demolition drive was biased against Muslim residents, after officials stopped short of damaging a temple that was in the same lane as other structures which were said to be encroaching.
During his visit to the JCB factory, Mr Johnson dismissed questions about authoritarianism in his host country and insisted that India “is democratic”.
Nonetheless, Mr Johnson suggested he would raise with Mr Modi issues including restrictions on the press, the protection of minorities and the use of bulldozers to destroy mainly Muslim homes when asked by broadcasters during the visit to the JCB factory.
He said: “We always raise the difficult issues, of course we do, but the fact is that India is a country of 1.35 billion people and it is democratic, it’s the world’s largest democracy.”
Asked if it was an embarrassment for the prime minister that JCB should find itself involved in a court case on the day he visited its factory in Gujarat, Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “It is a matter for the Indian authorities how any equipment is used.”
The spokesperson denied that Mr Johnson had visited the JCB plant because the firm’s boss Lord Bamford is a major Tory donor.
“No,” he said. “He chose to go to the JCB factory because it is a very good illustration of a UK business working with India and the Indian government to benefit both the UK and India.
“The factory visited today is the sixth one they have opened here. They are one of the biggest producers in India of this sort of equipment.”
The Jahangirpuri area witnessed violence on 16 and 18 April during Hindu festivals, when slogan-chanting saffron-clad men carried out a procession in the area where mostly Muslims reside and a scuffle ensued between groups of people.
It follows a similar incident in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where the state government — also led by the BJP — openly said it was demolishing Muslim properties as punishment for the violence that marred a Hindu festival in the city of Khargone.
According to news reports, the authorities there vowed to demolish at least 50 “illegal” structures of Muslims accused of pelting stones at the Ram Navami procession and said that the damage caused to public and private properties during the violence will be recovered from rioters.
Mr Modi’s government has been repeatedly accused of emboldening hardline Hindu religious groups and in recent months several incidents of hate speech against Muslims have been reported at religious events. There have been clashes between the two communities during recent Hindu festivals in at least five Indian states.
During his visit to Ahmedabad, Mr Johnson is also expected to meet billionaire Gautam Adani, a firm supporter of Mr Modi and fellow Gujarati, and to see the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City or GIFT City before flying to Delhi where he will meet the Indian prime minister.
Downing Street says Mr Johnson’s focus will be on strengthening trade and defence ties between India and the UK, and that the prime minister will not “lecture” his host on any points of difference, including India’s ongoing neutral stance towards the conflict in Ukraine.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies