Biden will not ‘lecture’ Modi on human rights, says White House

The US president is under pressure by fellow Democrats to bring up India’s rights situation and attacks on minorities in his talks with Modi.

Biden Modi
US President Joe Biden with Indian PM Narendra Modi in the Oval Office of the White House [File: Evan Vucci/AP]

US President Joe Biden has welcomed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two days of talks that the White House sees as bolstering “one of the defining partnerships of our age,” despite continuing concerns about human rights in India.

Washington wants New Delhi to be a strategic counterweight to China while Modi is seeking to raise the influence that his country, now the world’s most populous, has on the world stage.

Biden and Modi are expected to announce a variety of agreements related to defence cooperation and sales, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and investments in India by Micron Technology and other United States companies.

Biden is expected to bring up US concerns about democratic backsliding and attacks on Muslims and other minorities in India, but he will not lecture Modi on the subject, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday.

When the US sees challenges to press, religious or other freedoms, “we make our views known,” Sullivan said. He added: “We do so in a way where we don’t seek to lecture or assert that we don’t have challenges ourselves.

“Ultimately, the question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians. It’s not going to be determined by the United States,” Sullivan said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting supporters in New York. Some are waving US and Indian flags.
Modi greets supporters as he arrives at the Lotte hotel in New York [Mike Segar/Reuters]

Modi has been to the US five times since becoming prime minister in 2014, but the trip will be his first with the full diplomatic status of a state visit, despite concerns over what is seen as a deteriorating human rights situation under his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Boycott of US Congress address

Biden is under pressure from his fellow Democrats to bring up human rights with Modi.

More than 70 Democrats from both the House of Representatives and the Senate wrote a letter to Biden, urging him to discuss the need to protect human rights and democratic values in India as he meets with Modi.

Two Muslim Congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, announced their boycott of Modi’s address to the Congress on Friday.

“It’s shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation’s capital – his long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions targeting Muslims & religious minorities and censoring journalists is unacceptable,” said the Democratic legislator Tlaib on Twitter.

“I will be boycotting Modi’s joint address to Congress,” she wrote.

In her tweet, Omar said Modi’s government has “repressed religious minorities, emboldened violent Hindu nationalist groups, and targeted journalists/human rights advocates with impunity”.

“I will NOT be attending Modi’s speech,” she posted.

In a statement on Tuesday, the rights group Amnesty International said the US and India must address the grave human rights issues in both countries.

“Prime Minister Modi has presided over a period of rapid deterioration of human rights protections in India, including increasing violence against religious minorities, shrinking civil society space, and the criminalisation of dissent,” it said in a statement shared with Al Jazeera.

Amnesty said it has documented how India criminalised freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, placed dangerous constraints on civil society, and arrested dozens of rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political opponents, academics and students under arbitrary charges.

“Financial and investigative agencies of the government have been weaponised to harass, silence, and criminalise independent critical voices, including media organisations such as the BBC and prominent non-governmental organisations,” it said.

“While the red carpet has been rolled out for Prime Minister Modi, people in India continue to experience grave human rights abuses,” said Aakar Patel, chair of the board at Amnesty International India.

“As leaders of countries seeking to advance or retain global leadership, Biden and Modi must hold each other to account for their human rights commitments, rather than sweep human rights issues in their respective countries under the rug.”

Modi is being warmly greeted by US CEOs, including at a scheduled reception on Friday. Shortly after he arrived in New York on Tuesday, he met with Tesla’s Elon Musk, who also owns Twitter, which has been accused of censoring accounts and content critical of Modi.

On Wednesday, Modi will kick off his public schedule with a group yoga session on the United Nations North Lawn.

UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and many other diplomats and UN officials are expected to attend the event to mark International Yoga Day, which Modi persuaded the UN to designate in 2014 as an annual observance.

Modi will visit the National Science Foundation with first lady Jill Biden on Wednesday and have a private dinner with the president on Wednesday night at the White House.

On Thursday, Modi will be welcomed with a colourful arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn. Biden and Modi will hold Oval Office talks and attend a state dinner in Modi’s honour on Thursday night.

No joint press conference was planned. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said work was still under way on this subject.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies