What You Need to Know About Narendra Modi's Visit to the U.K.

Modi In Britain
British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their bilateral meeting before the G20 leaders Summit in Brisbane, November 14, 2014. Lukas Koch/pool/Reuters

A fortnight after the U.K. rolled out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping, this week the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in the country, as Britain continues its quest to woo the world's economic superpowers. But as with President Xi's visit, Modi's time in the country will not be without controversy.


Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to visit the U.K. in almost a decade following Manmohan Singh's trip in 2006. He arrives in Britain on Thursday to begin what looks likely to be a busy three days. During this time he will have lunch with the Queen, address a joint session at parliament with Prime Minister David Cameron, visit the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Parliament Square and stay the night at the prime minister's country residence, Chequers, according to the Press Association. He will also attend an event for British Indians and unveil a statue of the 12th century philosopher Basaveshwara, according to the Daily Telegraph.


The focus of the trip is primarily to cement business ties between the two nations. Reuters reports that up to 12 billion pounds ($15.1 billion) worth of deals will be signed during the course of Modi's stay, including the sale of 20 Hawk trainer aircraft to India by British defence company BAE Systems.

The occasion is also an opportunity for the hugely popular Indian prime minister to address Britain's considerable Indian diasporaBritain's largest foreign-born population. Around 1.7 million British Indians live in the U.K., 60,000 of whom are expected to attend a rally held at Wembley Stadium on Friday. The event will be "a cultural showcase featuring the best of Indian and British talent; a landmark speech to be delivered by Prime Minister Modi and a grand finale featuring the biggest fireworks display in the whole country," according to the U.K. Welcomes Modi website.


Modi remains wildly popular in India with an 87 percent approval rating, despite recently suffering an unexpectedly heavy defeat in the Bihar assembly polls over the weekend. He has a formidable Twitter following, and part of his appeal lies in the fact that he is seen as a modernizing force for India, a leader intent on boosting Indian business, while vowing to crackdown on corruption and improve sanitation. He is popular elsewhere too. His visit to Britain will echo the rock-star reception he received in 2014 when he held a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden that attracted 18,000 fans. On his two-day trip to the U.S. West Coast last month, Modi hugged Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a live event, and made marked moves to convince U.S. technology companies to invest in India. Addressing an audience at a 18,000-seat sports arena in San Jose at the end of his California trip, Modi declared, "[India] has moved on from scriptures to satellites. The world has started to believe that the 21st century belongs to India."


Despite his popularity, several campaign groups have protested Modi's visit. Awaaz Networka U.K.-based human rights network of South Asian organizations and individualsprojected the words "Modi not welcome" onto the Houses of Parliament last Sunday evening.

Most of the opposition to Modi's visit is due to the 2002 massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the western state. He was accused of failing to prevent the revenge killings, which occurred after 59 Hindu pilgrims died after a suspected arson attack on a train.

In 2012, a Special Investigation Team monitored by the Indian Supreme Court said that there was no evidence that Modi had any role in the state-wide mob killings, but he was severely criticized by the international community for his lacklustre response to the massacre. For many years, he denied any wrongdoing, and in 2013 he caused further controversy when he told Reuters that he regretted the killings as he would a "puppy being run over by a car."

As a result of the 2002 killings Modi was barred from traveling to Britain, although the ban was subsequently lifted in 2012 after it became likely that he would become India's next prime minister. The U.S. also denied Modi a visa following the violence but lifted the ban in 2014

Despite these warming of international relations, some critics say that sectarian conflict is growing in India, and accuse Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of not doing enough to stem the violence, and even of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the country.

In the last seven weeks alone, four Muslims suspected of slaughtering, stealing or smuggling cows have been murdered by mobs, according to the New York Times. 80 percent of the Indian population are Hindu and consider cows to be sacred.

Among some parts of Indian society, the backlash against such violence appears to be growing. More than 40 of India's most distinguished writers returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, the national literature academy, in October, in protest against what they see as a rising tide of intolerance in the country. The Bollywood film star Shah Rukh Khan has publicly expressed his concern about "extreme intolerance" in the country, while the governor of India's central bank, Raghuram Rajan has also made a plea for peace in India.

U.K.-India Relations

While nearly 40 British MPs have signed a motion calling on Cameron to raise human rights concerns with Modi, David Cameron's official spokesperson has so far simply said that "nothing is off the table" in terms of what will be discussed between the two leaders. The spokesperson added in a statement, "These bilateral talks that the prime minister has with leaders from around the world provide an opportunity to engage in person with them on a whole range of issues and talk to them about the challenges facing different countries and how we respond to them. Our focus is on how we can work together on the challenges facing our countries from economic prosperity to security."