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US welcome of India’s Modi is darkened by rights record

US focuses on strategic partnership over India's democratic backsliding

California Rep. Ami Bera, one of five Indian American lawmakers, all Democrats, says he would "hate to see India lose that secular identity" that saw the world's largest Hindu population living side by side with one of the world's largest Muslim populations.
California Rep. Ami Bera, one of five Indian American lawmakers, all Democrats, says he would "hate to see India lose that secular identity" that saw the world's largest Hindu population living side by side with one of the world's largest Muslim populations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will this week receive Washington’s top honors for a foreign dignitary: a state dinner at the White House and an address — his second — to a joint meeting of Congress.

Lawmakers and President Joe Biden, eager to deepen a trade and security relationship with one of world’s fastest-growing economies, are publicly papering over the Indian government’s crackdowns on political opposition, the media, civil society and religious minorities in Modi’s nearly 10 years leading the country. Many human rights groups are criticizing the administration and Congress for bestowing the honors. 

For Democrats, including a handful of Indian Americans in Congress, there’s also a political calculation to justify carefully weighing their words: The overwhelming majority of Indian Americans vote Democratic and polls show they want deeper U.S.-Indian ties, but are also concerned about New Delhi’s current path. Modi himself has reached out to this diaspora and his past visits to the U.S. have drawn big crowds.

“India’s historic strength and foundation was as a secular nation where you could have the world’s largest Hindu population living side-by-side with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and I would hate to see India lose that secular identity and I say that as an Indian American,” said Rep. Ami Bera, one of five Indian American lawmakers, all of whom are Democrats.

Bera, D-Calif., was one of several lawmakers who spoke at a conference this month hosted by Indian American Impact, a progressive advocacy group that works to get Indian Americans and other South Asians elected to office in the U.S.

Bera, whose modest criticism of Modi was still stronger than that of his Indian American colleagues in Congress, added that he doesn’t think Washington can “cajole” changes in India’s domestic politics any more than it can for other allies like Turkey that are also experiencing democratic backsliding.

Underlying Washington’s welcome of Modi is an effort to move more U.S. supply chains toward India, and away from China. The U.S. also wants India to reduce its purchases of Russian oil and to play a bigger role in maintaining security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Those interests appear to have led the administration and progressive lawmakers to remain reticent on India’s human rights behavior amid a rise in communal violence, hate crimes and incendiary rhetoric by politicians — documented by independent journalism projects like Hindutva Watch. 

“This administration has been struggling with how to strike a balance between highlighting the concerns about democratic backsliding along with furthering a strategic partnership,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “The reason why it’s a difficult balance to carry out is this is a government in India that is very sensitive to any type of external criticism of its internal policies.”

Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva, is a political ideology that seeks the political, legal and religious supremacy of Hindus and to undo India’s status as a secular state. In almost a decade of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s federal leadership, Hindutva has moved from a fringe ideology to the political mainstream.

Modi himself was under a U.S. travel ban for years due to his record as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, when Hindu mobs killed some 1,000 Muslims.

“What’s happening in India should be setting off all of the alarm bells, whether it is the fears of genocide when it comes to the 200 million Muslim population, whether it comes to the crackdown and the blocking of freedom of speech in the Punjabi area, what’s happening with Sikhs,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of the few lawmakers criticizing Modi’s leadership publicly.

“We’ve seen the atrocious human rights violations in Kashmir and what happened to the Punjabi farmers,” she said in an interview. “It’s all really, truly a scary thing to watch and to have almost not a concentrated effort here in Washington to address that or to even have a willingness to speak up.”

The administration and most members of Congress are instead putting the focus on persuading New Delhi to reduce its reliance on Russia for oil and weapons and to take a stronger role in standing up to China in the Indo-Pacific. National security adviser Jake Sullivan was in New Delhi last week for talks on “steps to advance the strategic technology and defense partnership between the United States and India,” the White House said Thursday.

“I think that their main motivation for investing in India and extending this state level visit despite differences over Russia and backsliding when it comes to religious freedom is really because the Biden administration views India as an integral part of its Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Lisa Curtis, senior director for South Asia on the National Security Council during the Trump administration.

Publicly criticizing Modi could also provoke his BJP and bring charges of hypocrisy given the United State’s own democratic backsliding in recent years, the large number of targeted killings of minorities and mixed human rights record abroad.

Because of America’s own imperfect track record, the issues of India’s continued heavy trade with Russia and democratic backsliding at home “are best raised behind closed doors,” said Curtis, who now leads the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “They don’t call for public condemnation. The situation is not really conducive to that and I think it would backfire.”

But activists say the U.S. could be sacrificing credibility on human rights by embracing Modi and may end up with little to show for it. That’s because India has a record of nonalignment from the Cold War and has domestic incentives to buy heavily discounted Russian oil to feed an economy the International Monetary Fund expects to expand almost 6 percent this year. The BJP has made economic growth a priority, given a fast-growing population of over 1.4 billion people and the risk of instability and election losses if young workers can’t get adequate jobs.

“India is going to try to be a nonaligned country as long as they can be,” said Bera, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Indo-Pacific Subcommittee. He also predicted New Delhi will eventually move closer to the geopolitical orbit of the U.S.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., an Indian-American and the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on Tuesday co-led a letter signed by more than 70 lawmakers, including 18 Democratic senators, calling for Biden to bring up human rights concerns when he meets 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,” said the letter. “Specifically, the State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in India documents the tightening of political rights and expression.”

Push for consistency

Modi proved to be a popular U.S. guest in the past, drawing big crowds at rallies in 2014 and 2019. Almost half of the 1,200 Indian Americans who participated in a 2020 survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said they approved of Modi’s leadership of India.

“Indian Americans’ policy views are more liberal on issues affecting the United States and more conservative on issues affecting India,” the survey said.

In the 2020 presidential election, 74 percent of Indian Americans voted for Biden, according to a survey by AAPI Data, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Mich., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, didn’t offer any criticism of Modi’s domestic rights record when asked but extolled the relationship between the U.S. and India.

“I’m delighted to welcome the prime minister to the United States,” said Thanedar. “I think it’s about time that India puts its trust in the United States and that the United States puts its trust in India and these two great democracies built a lasting, trusting friendship.”

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said India’s democratic backsliding is of concern and that he believes the administration intends to address it in some form during this week’s state visit.

“What is happening with this visit is a recognition of the relationship being as deep as it is and probably going to higher heights in the coming months and years,” he said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, in a statement called Modi’s visit an opportunity “to strengthen the economic and national security partnership while affirming the values of pluralism, human rights, and liberal democracy.”

Outside of Congress, however, groups are urging the administration to send a clear message.

“I think the Biden administration should remember how strongly they stood up against [former President Donald] Trump and his brand of American fascism,” said Safa Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council during a panel discussion at the Indian American Impact conference this month.

Speaking alongside Ahmed, Sim J. Singh Attariwala, senior manager of policy and advocacy of the Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization that defends Sikh civil liberties in the U.S., said Modi’s visit was an opportunity for the Biden administration to “exhibit leadership” on human rights.

“Our partners have to be held to a standard of accountability that we hold to anyone else,” said Singh Attariwala.

Despite Modi’s efforts to consolidate power, there are signs India’s democracy remains resilient with the opposition Congress Party scoring a statewide election win last month. Several House lawmakers pointed to that as evidence some Indian voters may be tiring of the BJP’s push toward one-party rule.

But if Modi is reelected to a third consecutive term in 2024 and Hindutva grows more extreme, Washington may end up regretting its hesitancy to put pressure on him, said Kugelman.

“What if this democratic backsliding get to a point where you have communal violence, significant violence and unrest, significant crackdowns on Muslim communities? … That could conceivably distract the Indian government from focusing on the strategic and foreign policy issues that allow it to work with the U.S.,” said Kugelman. “The risk is that if things continue to get worse and worse in India, India’s government then lacks the bandwidth to partner with the U.S. in countering China.”

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