India’s Modi faces human rights criticism ahead of US visit

India’s prime minister will attend a state dinner at the White House this week as the two countries seek greater ties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting supporters in New York. Some are waving US and Indian flags.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in New York on Tuesday afternoon [Mike Segar/Reuters]

The administration of President Joe Biden is preparing to host a state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week, paying little mind to critics who say the United States is turning a blind eye to human rights violations in India under Modi’s right-wing government.

In a press conference on Tuesday, White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that Modi’s trip to the US will affirm a “deep and close” partnership.

“The visit will strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific,” Kirby said, adding that India will be a “critical strategic partner for the United States in the coming decades”.

Largely absent from Kirby’s comments were concerns about India’s human rights record and the Modi government’s embrace of a far-right Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva, which critics say has created a hostile environment for the country’s minorities, especially Muslims.

As the US seeks to counter the rise of China through alliances with countries throughout Asia and the Pacific, politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington, DC, have supported enhanced cooperation with India. Democratic and Republican leaders, for instance, invited Modi to address Congress during his trip.

But for some Democratic lawmakers, India’s record on religious freedom and civil liberties has drawn scrutiny.

In a letter on Tuesday signed by more than 70 members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, legislators called on the Biden administration to address human rights concerns in his talks with Modi.

“A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access,” the letter states.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, who did not sign the letter, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday that she would boycott Modi’s address to Congress.

“It’s shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation’s capital,” she wrote. “His long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims & religious minorities, and censoring journalists is unacceptable.”

Asked about such concerns, Kirby stated that it was “commonplace” for Biden to raise disagreements in talks with national leaders and that human rights were a “foundational element” of the administration’s foreign policy.

Kirby also played down the emphasis on China, stating that the trip was about the “burgeoning relationship” between the two countries and not about “sending a message to China”.

But US-based groups say Washington is ignoring systematic rights violations to pursue greater cooperation in areas such as weapons sales.

“Our concern is that the Biden administration is whitewashing everything going on in India,” said Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), which has helped organise a series of protests during Modi’s visit.

In a phone call with Al Jazeera, Ahmed said that Modi “has gone from being banned from entering the US to having the red carpet rolled out”, referencing previous sanctions against the leader.

Those sanctions date back to 2005, when the State Department barred Modi from the US for failing to stop anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was the leader of the state.

That restriction lasted until 2014, when Modi became prime minister. Nevertheless, last month, an official with the US State Department remarked on escalating threats to religious freedoms in India, including “targeted attacks” on minorities and “open calls for genocide against Muslims”. Some of those calls have come from officials within Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But with Modi and the BJP firmly in power, analysts say Washington has largely waived aside such concerns to bolster ties, as the US seeks allies in its efforts to contain China.

“Authoritarianism in places like Russia and China are well documented,” Mohamad Junaid, an anthropologist and expert on South Asian politics, told Al Jazeera over the phone. “But India has escaped similar consistent scrutiny because it veils itself as a democracy as it drifts closer to becoming a one-party state.”

In March, India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, was convicted for making comments insulting Modi. The move was widely criticised as an effort to disqualify Gandhi from challenging Modi in the 2024 elections. Modi and his party continue to enjoy substantial popularity in India.

Junaid also pointed to another example of the government’s rightward turn under Modi: the decision to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, in August 2019. It was a move, Junaid explained, that aligned with the longstanding goals of Hindu nationalists.

“There is no semblance of responsibility to the Kashmiri people. Journalists languish in prison, social media sites are blocked, there is widespread imprisonment without trial,” he said. “The US has largely remained silent.”

That may be changing though, according to Ahmed, the IAMC’s executive director. He noted it was “heartening” to see Tuesday’s letter about India’s human rights record, signed by dozens of legislators.

However, Ahmed said he would like to see US lawmakers take more concrete action to address the issue.

“It remains to be seen how far they will go,” he said. “The real test will be if they are willing to take a stand when it comes to the creation of policy.”

Source: Al Jazeera