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Thursday Newsletter 6/22/2023
The US Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Modi
In pursuing a strategic alliance with India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Biden has betrayed his promises to uphold human rights.
Aparna Gopalan

On May 15th, the US State Department released a damning report on the state of religious freedom in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. The 50-page document was crammed with examples of state-sanctioned violence against the country’s minorities, including the destruction of Muslim homes and storefronts, the vigilante killings of Muslims and Dalits (an oppressed group within India’s caste hierarchy), and the arrests of prominent Muslim and Dalit intellectuals. At a special briefing on the report, a senior State Department official noted that the situation in India was so dire that the US Holocaust Museum “lists it as one of its top countries of concern . . . with regards to potential for mass killings there.” The official said the State Department would continue to “speak directly with our colleagues and counterparts in India” about the violence.

A little over a month after the State Department report was released, a very different US–India conversation is taking center stage instead. On June 20th, Modi landed in New York for a four-day state visit, including a Wednesday speech at the United Nations, and a Thursday welcome at the White House followed by an address to a joint session of Congress and a state dinner. Time notes that Modi is one of few world leaders to receive such a warm diplomatic reception from Biden; The New York Times likewise reports that the “pomp-filled state visit [is] matched only by visits from America’s closest allies.”

The fanfare is rooted in realpolitik—namely, in Modi and Biden’s shared desire to join forces against the perceived threat of China. Journalist Azad Essa, author of a recent book about Hindu nationalism, told Jewish Currents that the US is courting India to “[create] options for Americans as the economic war with China expands.” Political scientist Rajan Menon agreed, explaining that India offers a promising arena for high-tech investments that US companies might divert from China. Security concerns are just as important for the US, which hopes to rely on Modi to counter Chinese expansionism in Asia.

From Modi’s perspective, meanwhile, the visit is a means to advance long-held strategic goals. “India wants intelligence, high technology, and investment from the US,” political scientist Sumit Ganguly told Jewish Currents. Modi’s time in the US may accelerate negotiations on each of these fronts; indeed, India’s years-long bid to purchase drones from the US came to fruition a week ahead of the trip. The visit is also expected to help lay the groundwork for a deal to get General Electric to produce military jets in India, a move that would give the country access to US defense technology. Indian officials are likewise seeking partnerships with US companies to co-manufacture munitions and ground vehicles. On Thursday, right before Modi’s address to Congress, the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus introduced a bill to add India to the list of favored nations for US arms sales.

Critics say that in pursuing this strategic alliance with Modi, Biden has betrayed his promises to hold India accountable for the many human rights violations that his own administration has documented. “On the one hand, the Biden administration is putting out these scathing reports, and on the other hand, Biden is not just inviting Modi to come and speak in Congress and at the UN, but is giving him an intentionally over-the-top, red carpet welcome,” said Sunita Viswanath of the progressive advocacy group Hindus for Human Rights. “This vote of confidence gives the message that the Modi government can act with complete impunity in trampling on human rights.”

This VIP treatment is a particularly stark reversal given that Modi was denied a US visa from 2005 to 2014 due to his role in abetting a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the Indian state of Gujarat, during which more than a thousand people, most of them Muslims, were killed. By receiving Modi with such pomp and ceremony, Essa said, the US has undercut the last remaining attempts to hold Modi accountable for the pogroms. He also feared that the visit stood to undermine State Department officials’ private admonishments to their Indian counterparts about the country’s current human rights situation. Indeed, the invitation to the US seems likely not only to relieve pressure on Modi, but to actively strengthen his position. “This visit has come so close to a general election that it will be a massive boost for him when India goes to the polls next year,” Essa pointed out. He added that the US’s warm reception of the prime minister will be viewed internationally as an endorsement of Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies, including his government’s 2019 annexation of Kashmir and its ongoing incarceration of thousands of political prisoners. “This state visit erases all these issues in the interest of business and spectacle,” Essa said.

Modi’s visit not only normalizes Hindu nationalism in India—it also boosts the stature of Hindu right groups in the US. Journalist Pieter Friedrich reported that in anticipation of Modi’s arrival, a PAC called Americans4Hindus staged a week-long “Hindu American Summit,” which multiple US representatives from both parties attended. The summit brought openly Hindu supremacist groups to Capitol Hill, including the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), which is the US wing of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Many of the groups present at the summit have worked to silence criticisms of Hindu nationalism through coordinated harassment campaigns, which have often targeted Muslim and Dalit activists. Romesh Japra, the chairman of Americans4Hindus, told Asian News International that Modi’s visit—which includes a meeting with prominent members of the Indian American diaspora on June 23rd—will “give us a lot more encouragement . . . to do a lot more.”

Even though Modi’s visit is emboldening the Hindu right, not all progressive lawmakers are speaking up against it. Previously, Rep. Ro Khanna—a Democrat from California—has been one of only two Hindu Americans in Congress to openly oppose Hindu nationalism, alongside Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. But as the recently appointed co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans—which has a mandate to strengthen the US–India relationship—Khanna joined his Republican co-chair Rep. Mike Waltz in requesting that McCarthy invite Modi to address Congress. South Asian progressives responded to Khanna’s decision with dismay, but Khanna defended himself on Twitter, citing “the deep importance of the US India strategic relationship” and the “hard balance” between respecting human rights and strengthening geopolitically significant ties. The Nation reports that in recent years, Khanna has accepted donations from prominent Hindu nationalist leaders and organizations; asked about this decision, Khanna said that he had “thousands of Indian American supporters” and that he doesn’t “ask each of those people what their views are on Indian politics.” (Khanna declined to speak with Jewish Currents, but his spokesperson said in a statement that he pushed to invite Modi because he “believes we can show respect to the democratically elected leadership in India while still speaking out about American values.”)

Since they were unable to prevent Modi’s invitation, progressive South Asians are looking to at least “place the issue of human rights at the center of this visit,” according to South Asian American writer and longtime activist Deepa Iyer. Dalit activist and author Yashica Dutt told Jewish Currents that it is critical to interrupt the visit’s business-as-usual with a conversation about Hindu nationalism because otherwise “the world will not understand the urgency of what’s happening in India until it is way too late.” In an attempt to generate pushback, Hindus for Human Rights released a letter signed by dozens of advocacy groups, including many from the left wing of the Indian diaspora, asking Biden to “publicly and meaningfully . . . push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued separate letters calling on Biden to speak publicly against Hindu supremacy. Some legislators have taken a similar position. On Tuesday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Jayapal released an open letter signed by 75 Democratic members of Congress asking Biden to “raise directly with Prime Minister Modi areas of concern” around rising Hindu nationalism in India. Despite these efforts, however, Biden is apparently not planning to pressure Modi on human rights; Time reported that White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said the president “will not ‘lecture’ Modi on the subject.”

Faced with Biden’s reluctance to rock the boat, a small number of members of Congress—Reps. Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Jamie Raskin—decided to boycott Modi’s congressional address altogether. Rep. Ilhan Omar also announced plans to host a Capitol Hill policy briefing right after the speech to highlight India’s human rights situation. However, the boycotting lawmakers are outnumbered by colleagues who have ultimately shown a willingness to prioritize strategic considerations. Even Rep. Jayapal emphasized that political imperatives come first, telling Time, “India is a critical partner of the United States as a country regardless of who the Prime Minister is.” (Jayapal also served on Modi’s escort team.) The letter the 75 members of Congress sent to Biden similarly mentions the importance of the partnership between the US and India, and joins Biden in “welcoming Prime Minister Modi to the United States.” In Viswanath’s words, the visit demonstrates that at the end of the day, for the US, human rights are negotiable, while “political expediency and financial relationships are paramount.”