Indian Americans protest outside White House over Modi’s visit
Protesters call on the Biden administration to hold Indian leader accountable over rights violations and religious freedom.
Washington, DC – Dozens of Indian Americans have gathered at Lafayette Square, the park in front of the White House, to protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States.
Chanting slogans and holding placards that read “Save India from fascism”, the protesters on Thursday castigated Modi over human rights violations, persecution of Muslims and other minorities, new farm laws, and the crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Since his election as India’s prime minister in 2014, Modi has been accused of presiding over an unprecedented religious polarisation in his country, with several laws discriminating against minority groups, mainly its 200 million Muslims.
Modi is currently in the US to attend the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad Summit, with President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The four-nation Quad alliance aims to check China’s growing military and economic power globally.
Modi will also address the ongoing United Nations General Assembly in New York on Saturday.
Later on Friday, Biden will host his first bilateral meeting with Modi after winning the presidential election. The two leaders are expected to discuss a range of topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
“Bilateral discussion between the US and India will help reinforce and give momentum to the Quad discussion because many of the topics are very much interrelated,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters earlier this week.
Before the scheduled Biden-Modi meeting, the protesters outside the White House called on the US president to keep to his campaign promise of making human rights a central feature of the American foreign policy.
Last year, during the presidential election campaign, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris strongly condemned New Delhi’s crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir, the implementation of a controversial citizens list in Assam state, and the passage of an “anti-Muslim” citizenship law that triggered nationwide protests and deadly riots in the capital.
Dozens of Muslim activists and students were thrown into jail for protesting against the 2019 citizenship law that the United Nations called “fundamentally discriminatory” as it blocks naturalisation for Muslims.
Al Jazeera reached out to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s office to confirm if human rights and religious freedom were on the agenda during the Biden-Modi meeting, but a spokesperson declined to comment.
Victor Begg, a 74-year-old community leader and activist, said he travelled all the way from Florida state to register his protest against Biden’s meeting with the Hindu nationalist leader.
“What Modi represents is totally against American values. By allowing him into the United States and hosting him in the White House compromises our democracy as well,” Begg told Al Jazeera.
The activists raised the recent surge in the attacks and killings of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, by the members of Hindu right-wing groups in various parts of India.
“Right now, we are witnessing a slow genocide of minorities. The lives of India’s 200 million Muslims are at stake, and the Biden administration can no longer afford to stay silent. This meeting is the right time to send a stern message to India,” Syed Ali, the president of an advocacy group, the Indian American Muslim Council, told Al Jazeera.
Ali also expressed “extreme displeasure” over a meeting between a senior US diplomat and Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organisation or the RSS), the far-right ideological mentor of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On September 8, Atul Keshap, the US acting ambassador to India, visited Bhagwat in New Delhi. “Good discussion with Shri Mohan Bhagwat about how India’s tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusion and pluralism can ensure the vitality and strength of a truly great nation,” Keshap tweeted.
Good discussion with @RSSorg Shri Mohan Bhagwat about how India's tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusivity, and pluralism can ensure the vitality and strength of a truly great nation. pic.twitter.com/FB5gizzFuI
— U.S. Ambassador to India (@USAmbIndia) September 8, 2021
When contacted by Al Jazeera, the US Department of State declined to give details of the “private diplomatic conversations” between Keshap and Bhagwat.
“US officials meet a wide range of political, business, religious, and civil society leaders in India and across the world. We cannot comment on the details of private diplomatic conversations,” Nicole Thompson, the Department of State’s press officer, said in an emailed response to Al Jazeera.
Farhana Kara Motala, an activist with Justice For All, a Chicago-based advocacy group, raised serious concerns over “the ongoing state repression” in Indian-administered Kashmir and urged the Biden administration to stand up for the rights of the Kashmiris.
“US can’t stay as a mute spectator as India continues to violate all the rights of Kashmiris,” Motala told Al Jazeera.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed by India and Pakistan, which rule over parts of it. Indian-administered Kashmir is the country’s only Muslim-majority region, where an armed rebellion started in the 1990s to either merge with Pakistan or create an independent country.
Shortly after Modi was re-elected in 2019, his government scrapped the disputed region’s special status guaranteed by the constitution and turned it into a federal territory.
The move was followed by an unprecedented crackdown by India’s forces, which saw hundreds of politicians, activists, separatists and youths thrown in jails and a months-long security lockdown and communications blackout in the region.
As former chief minister of India’s Gujarat state, Modi was banned from travelling to the US for a decade after more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in 2002 in what critics describe as a pogrom.
Al Jazeera reached out to four BJP spokespersons and the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, but they declined to comment or did not respond to questions on Thursday’s protest.
Arjun Sethi, a community activist and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, said India under Modi’s rule has become the world’s largest authoritative government, suppressing any dissent and criticism of its policies.
Sethi spoke about cases of police brutality meted out to India’s farmers, who have been protesting for nearly 10 months on the highways leading to New Delhi, seeking repeal of three new “anti-farmer” agricultural laws passed by the Modi government in September last year.
“They (farmers) organised peacefully to fight for their rights and food security in India, and in return, they were met with suppression and violence,” Sethi told Al Jazeera.
“We are here because we stand for the rights of minorities, Dalits, women, farmers, human rights defenders, and journalists in India.”
Dalits, who fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, have faced persecution and marginalisation at the hands of “upper-caste” Hindus for centuries.
Linda Cheriyan, 25, an activist with Black Lives Matter of Greater New York who participated in Thursday’s protest, said it is high time that Biden delivers on his campaign promises of promoting democracy and human rights globally, especially in India.
“Fascist regimes can’t be America’s strategic partners,” Cheriyan told Al Jazeera.