Joti Rekhi: Modi’s State Visit To America Met With Growing Protests
“The United States is making a terrible mistake in celebrating and platforming Modi.”
Joti Kaur Rekhi
June 22, 2023 | 6 min. read | Original Reporting
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington, D.C., today as part of his first official state visit since taking office in 2014.
Although Modi has been welcomed to the nation’s capitol several times before, including an invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress in 2016, an official state visit reaffirms a commitment by America to further developing bilateral ties with India.
“The visit will strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defense, clean energy, and space,” said John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at an event previewing Modi’s visit.
People across the U.S. are having mixed reactions to the visit from Modi, a leader who was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2005 by President Bush after more than 1,000 Muslims were killed during mass violence against the minority group under his watch as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002.
“So much of the Modi, BJP, RSS agenda is rooted in this idea of Hindu supremacy; the idea that Hindus should enjoy privileged rights in India and all other communities should have diminished rights. So as a consequence, we’ve seen Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other communities suffer immense persecution under the Modi regime,” said Arjun Sethi, Human Rights lawyer and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law. “And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that actions, including protests we’re seeing take place today, are very much multi-faith.”
Several people protested as Modi participated in an International Yoga Day event outside of UN Headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Demonstrations are continuing in Washington, D.C., as the Prime Minister prepares to meet with President Biden and address a Joint Session of Congress this afternoon.
“We are expecting hundreds of people to show up to show Modi that he is not welcome in the United States,” said Sethi. “The United States is making a terrible mistake in celebrating and platforming Modi.”
Several civil rights organizations, including Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, Daily Solidarity, and Genocide Watch, have urged President Biden to reconsider his invitation to the right-wing Hindu-nationalist leader.
In a letter to the President, they write, “While your administration is working to defend democracy globally, we are alarmed that you would confer this diplomatic honor on a foreign leader with a decades’ long history of severely curtailing civil and political liberties and undermining democratic norms.”
Hindus for Human Rights further called on the President to publicly speak out against human rights violations occurring in the world’s third-largest economy.
Part of their letter reads, “Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.”
Policy Director Ria Chakrabarty describes the mood in D.C. this week as being shrouded in a cloud of criticism. She isn’t hopeful that the President will meet her organization’s request to his Indian counterpart.
“I think where I find hope is that the pressure is really high, and it’s only going to get even higher. Even if this time around he doesn’t say something, it’s getting to a point where it becomes more and more obvious that he’s not saying something,” said Chakrabarty.
Biden, who campaigned on civil rights issues in America, has developed a close relationship with the Hindu nationalist leader. Although his administration has recognized violations, including extrajudicial killings, restrictions on freedom of expression and media, harassment of human rights groups, and targeted violence against minority groups, he continues to court the country as a strategic partner in order to counter China.
“I think one thing that we’re seeing is that there’s this rhetoric that the U.S. and India relationship is based on shared values as democracies coming together as a bulwark against China. And as India slides more and more to autocracy under Modi, that line becomes more and more oblivious to the realities in India. And these are realities that, as much as the Biden Administration may want to ignore them, they’re just so incredibly obvious, you can’t hide from them,” said Chakrabarty.
Progressive lawmakers, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plan to boycott PM Modi’s address to Congress this afternoon.
Rep. Tlaib tweeted earlier this week that it is “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.”
Instead of attending Modi’s event, Rep. Omar will be holding a briefing with human rights groups to discuss the Prime Minster’s record of violence and repression.
Meantime, more than 70 lawmakers have signed a letter co-written by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Chris Van Hollen urging the President to discuss the need to protect human rights and democratic values in India.
Rep. Jayapal, who will be attending today’s Joint Session, co-writes, “We join you in welcoming Prime Minister Modi to the United States. We want a close and warm relationship between the people of the United States and the people of India. We want that friendship to be built not only on our many shared interests but also on shared values.”
It’s important to note that neither Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer nor Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez signed the letter. The two wrote a joint letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding concerns about crackdowns on peaceful protestors and journalists during the Farmers’ Protest in 2021 as the first members of Biden's cabinet traveled to the country during the pandemic.
However, on June 1, the Senate Majority Leader shifted his tone in a letter inviting the Prime Minister to join him for a Joint Meeting of Congress during his state visit. The letter, also signed by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, reads in part:
“Your historic address to a Joint Meeting of Congress seven years ago left a lasting impact and greatly deepened the friendship between the United States and India. As you said in that address: ‘Our relationship is primed for a momentous future. The constraints of the past are behind us, and foundations of the future are firmly in place.’”
The rights of minorities in India have consistently been eroding since the country was initially downgraded to “Partly Free” status in 2021 by the independent watchdog organization, Freedom House. This year, the non-profit continues to recognize marginalization of scheduled castes (Dalits) and harassment of journalists, NGOs, and other government critics.
Yashica Dutt, a journalist and writer from among the most marginalized sections of Indian society, can attest to these crimes, which she says have increased tremendously under the Modi regime.
She said that Dalits often face violent punishment for minor offenses like touching cricket balls or drinking water from sources that are “reserved” for people from “dominant” classes.
According to her, the violations are even worse when it comes to women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“The truth is that caste is a systemic reality, and Dalits and Adviasis have continued to suffer in India for decades, even under other previous governments,” said Dutt. “However, it is under the current government which espouses a violently Hindu, upper caste and male identity, with many godmen in their cabinet who openly talk about the glory days when caste was the official rule of the country, that the violence against minorities, including Dalits and Adivasis has greatly exacerbated.”
Meantime, the Bidens will host PM Modi this evening for an evening of dinner and performances along with several elected officials and celebrities. Day three of the Prime Minister’s visit will conclude with a luncheon with Vice President Kamala Harris and Sec. Blinken.
Joti Kaur Rekhi is a video journalist, host, and public speaker with a master’s degree in International Public Policy from one of the most prestigious universities in London. She has a decade of experience working in newsrooms and live events in the U.S. and U.K., ranging from politics, social justice and mental health. She’s passionate about uplifting voices that often go unheard is committed to tell stories that create impactful change.You can find Joti on Twitter at @jotikrekhi
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