"We have taken the view that geopolitics and countering China is more important to us right now than the values-based diplomacy the Biden administration came in saying they would prioritize," said one critic.
Human rights defenders this week condemned President Joe Biden's upcoming state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who was once banned from entering the United States for supporting violent Hindu supremacists who massacred Muslims—as part of an ongoing U.S. "whitewash" of the right-wing leader's extremism.
Modi—who represents the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—is set to meet with Biden and speak before Congress this week in a visit the White House says "will strengthen our two countries' shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific."
However, rights groups and activists are condemning Biden's embrace of Modi while underscoring the grave human rights violations committed by the prime minister, his party, and their allies.
"Increasingly in recent years, BJP leaders have used toxic and hateful speech targeting religious minorities, inciting violence or discrimination against them."
"For almost a decade now, human rights activists and others have regularly brought to the White House—Democrats or Republicans—that Modi's regime is authoritarian, it's right-wing, it's anti-Muslim, and it's anti-minority" Suchitra Vijayan, author of Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India, toldHuffPost.
"The fact that they continue to whitewash him by giving them a platform is very worrying," she added.
Vijayan noted that "despite who is in the White House, the U.S. has a long history of propping up authoritarian regimes for its own personal ends."
\u201c\u201cDespite who is in the White House, the U.S. has a long history of propping up authoritarian regimes for its own personal ends.\u201d\n\u201cWhat happens in a country of a billion people will have global ramifications,\u201d\n\nImportant piece by @Rowaida_Abdel \nhttps://t.co/W1arZrWd1W\u201d— Suchitra Vijayan (@Suchitra Vijayan) 1687103295
John Prabhudoss, chairman of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, told HuffPost that Indian pastors and their families live in constant terror.
"Their family could be jailed or even the worst, killed. The fear is real," he said. "For the president to bring [Modi] to the White House... is shameful. Mr. Biden, shame on you."
In a June 8 letter to Biden, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Modi's visit "an important opportunity for the U.S. government to raise concerns—both privately and publicly—about India's worsening human rights situation."
\u201cIt's bad enough the Biden will give Modi the prestige of a state visit despite his HIndu nationalist attacks on Muslims and his censorship of journalist and civil-society critics. At least Biden should speak publicly about these human rights violations. https://t.co/cJdpM6iBu3\u201d— Kenneth Roth (@Kenneth Roth) 1686916859
The letter stated:
There are numerous areas of concern. Increasingly in recent years, BJP leaders have used toxic and hateful speech targeting religious minorities, inciting violence or discrimination against them. BJP-led authorities have tightened restrictions on free speech while ramping up censorship and using overbroad and vague laws to investigate and prosecute critics. Modi's government has also demonstrated blatant bias in protecting BJP supporters and affiliates accused [of] a range of crimes, including murder, assault, corruption, and sexual violence. At the international level, Modi's government has often proven unwilling to stand with other governments on key human rights crises, abstaining or refraining from condemning grave human rights violations elsewhere.
HRW and Amnesty International are set to host a private screening of a BBC documentary on Modi and his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The film, India: The Modi Question, was banned by the government, which raided the BBC's India offices over what officials called a tax probe but critics condemned as retaliation in line with Modi's attacks on press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st out of 180 nations in press freedom, behind Afghanistan and just ahead of Russia.
\u201c#EconWatch: In @RSF_inter\u2019s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India ranks a HORRIBLE 161st out of 180 countries.\u00a0This is a dismal state of affairs in the world's so-called largest "democracy."\u201d— Steve Hanke (@Steve Hanke) 1687094700
Modi, who was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat at the time of the 2002 slaughter, blamed Muslims for torching a train full of Hindu pilgrims, an attack that killed around 60 people. Hindu mobs then murdered at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Muslim men, women, and children in a retaliatory rampage, with many women raped and mutilated.
More than 250 Hindus were also killed during the violence, which displaced an estimated 150,000 people.
A U.K. government probe found that Modi was "directly responsible" for the "climate of impunity" surrounding the massacre.
While Modi was accused of deliberately allowing the violence, a special investigation commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court cleared him of complicity in 2012. Still, Modi's alleged role in the massacre led to a U.S. visa ban, first instated during the George W. Bush administration in 2005. The ban was lifted by then-President Barack Obama's administration in 2014 after Modi became prime minister.
Violence—sometimes deadly—against religious minorities and others has continued, and increased, under BJP rule.
\u201cIndia\u2019s Bnei Menashe community in crisis as ethnic violence burns synagogues and displaces hundreds\n\nhttps://t.co/rSW8P8IllH\u201d— Suchitra Vijayan (@Suchitra Vijayan) 1687023521
As the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) notes:
The U.S. government and numerous internationally recognized organizations have condemned Modi for his and his political party's attacks on core democratic freedoms, as well as their roles in enabling violence against Indian minorities. The 2023 Report on International Religious Freedom by the Department of State highlights hate speeches by leaders of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which have contributed to anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence; the BJP's criminalization of religious conversion; BJP-led demolitions of Muslim-owned properties; Hindu supremacist rewriting of school curricula; arbitrary arrests of Muslims; and denial of bail for jailed Muslim activists. For four years running, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated India as a Country of Particular Concern for its egregious violations of human rights and religious freedoms, citing similar abuses.
"To fail to note Modi’s violent, anti-minority, authoritarian tendencies, and his corrupt mismanagement of the Indian economy, is not only to ignore the U.S. government's own findings but a strategic blunder with the potential to jeopardize global stability," IAMC said.
\u201cThis video shows Muslims being publicly flogged in Gujarat, India, following violent protests against a demolition order for a Muslim shrine \u2935\ufe0f\u201d— Al Jazeera English (@Al Jazeera English) 1687102200
"The turmoil Modi and the BJP have sown within Indian society is a profound threat to regional stability and has the potential to substantially undermine any joint initiatives," the group argued.
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corporation, said in an interview published Saturday by the Financial Times, "The question is, are we propping up an increasingly illiberal democracy here?"
"In my view, we are," he asserted. "We have taken the view that geopolitics and countering China is more important to us right now than the values-based diplomacy the Biden administration came in saying they would prioritize."
\u201c\u201cWe have taken the view that geopolitics and countering China is more important to us right now than the values-based diplomacy the Biden administration came in saying they would prioritise,\u201d says @DerekJGrossman\n\n https://t.co/YCih1scbT0\u201d— Indian American Muslim Council (@Indian American Muslim Council) 1687100543
Some congressional Democrats have also faced criticism for their varying degrees of support for Modi and the BJP.
When then-President Donald Trump embraced the Indian leader at the raucous 2019 "Howdy Modi!" rally in Houston, six Democrats took to the stage to greet Modi: then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.); Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas); Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.); Rep. Danny Davis (Ill.); Rep. Tom Suozzi (N.Y.), an erstwhile critic of Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir; and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.).
Krishnamoorthi has attended the World Hindu Congress, a notorious platform for Hindu nationalists including Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist-inspired political and paramilitary movement whose brand of Hindu supremacy heavily influenced the rise of the BJP. Modi is a former RSS regional director.
\u201cWashington Post Editorial board on Modi\u2019s visit to the United States. \n\n\u201cMr. Modi should be encouraged to brake the spiral of communal violence and toxic hate directed at India\u2019s roughly 200 million Muslims and other minorities\u201d https://t.co/lqsTdiuTO4\u201d— Rana Ayyub (@Rana Ayyub) 1687077689
Others, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), have been unwaveringly critical of Modi's policies and practices.
Then there is the curious case of Rep. Ro Khanna. Invoking the name of his grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar, a figure in India's independence movement who served multiple terms in parliament, the California Democrat in 2019 declared that "it's the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist, and Christians."
Hindutva—literally, "Hindu-ness"—is the modern political ideology espoused by Modi, the BJP, and many of their extremist allies advocating Hindu supremacy and the transformation of secular India into an ethno-nationalist state.
\u201cDid we beg for an invite? Congressional India Caucus' Co-chair Ro Khanna says, he pleaded with House Speaker McCarthy for securing an invite to PM Modi to address US Congress' Joint Session for 2nd time. There's no freebie in diplomacy. What'll be the quid pro quo for this favor?\u201d— Seema Sengupta, (@Seema Sengupta,) 1686320621
However, last month IAMC expressed its disappointment that Khanna asked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to invite Modi to deliver a joint address before Congress during his state visit to Washington. Khanna's request—which was made with Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.,)—contended that "granting a joint address to Congress is a commensurate honor for the leader of the world's largest democracy and perhaps the most critical partner to countering China in the 21st century."
In response, IAMC cautioned that "the opportunity to speak before Congress will help to legitimize Modi's brand of Hindu nationalist politics and the systematic persecution of religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, under his rule."
"Khanna has previously and admirably criticized Hindu nationalism, Rahul Gandhi's expulsion from parliament, and disingenuous cries of Hinduphobia used to deflect legitimate criticism of the Indian government," the group added. "IAMC urges Rep. Khanna to continue this fight, cancel his request, and instead educate his constituents about the harms the Modi regime has done to India."