Over the course of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extravagant three-day state visit to Washington, which featured a tented dinner on the South Lawn and a rare joint address to Congress, he and President Biden frequently spoke of their nations’ shared democratic values.
But that lofty rhetoric papered over the reality that in India, the hugely popular Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have advanced policies that discriminate against Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities and limit freedom of speech and the press.
At the White House on Thursday, Modi offered a rare response to a reporter’s question about his government’s handling of religious minorities and free speech amid concerns about the erosion of human rights in India.
“We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender,” Modi said. “There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.”
Foreign policy experts, democracy advocates, Indian dissidents and even the U.S. government disagree with his assessment. The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom has accused Modi’s government of overseeing arbitrary killings, restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and violence targeting religious minorities.
Human rights groups have accused his government of undermining democracy, including by passing a citizenship law that discriminates based on religion and revoking the special autonomous status granted to India’s only Muslim-majority territory, Jammu and Kashmir. In April, top opposition leader and vocal Modi critic Rahul Gandhi was expelled from parliament after a court convicted him of defamation for mocking Modi in an election speech.
India has also become an especially difficult place to be a reporter. The nation’s ranking has slipped to No. 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, a list compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Afghanistan, Venezuela and South Sudan rank higher.
In February, Indian tax authorities raided local BBC offices weeks after the British broadcaster aired a documentary on Modi’s role in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was the state’s chief minister. The government attempted to ban the documentary, labeling it “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage.”
I know a bit about the anxieties of reporting in Modi’s India. As a reporter for BBC News in 2019, I covered his reelection campaign.
Before traveling to New Delhi, I was summoned to the Indian Embassy in Washington, where I sat down for chai with an official from the BJP, Modi’s party, who quizzed me on my family’s background and my plans in India.
I recounted my father’s journey from southern India’s Chennai, then known as Madras, to the U.S. in 1965, his life in Chicago as a doctor and my work as a journalist.
I didn’t tell him I planned to travel to Assam state’s border with Bangladesh to interview some of the millions of Muslims who would be rendered stateless under a citizenship law that would pass in Modi’s second term. I left out my plans to write about the similarities between Modi’s policies and those of then-President Trump.
That reporting led to an onslaught of hate mail and social media harassment, but I was able to return home. The same can’t be said for the Indian journalists who have been detained or bullied for scrutinizing the BJP.
Last year, 10 human rights and democracy organizations called out Modi’s government for targeting journalists, saying it had “emboldened Hindu nationalists to threaten, harass, and abuse journalists critical of the Indian government, both online and offline, with impunity.”
“This government has employed a range of tactics to chill free expression,” said Nadine Farid Johnson of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free expression.
She pointed to the Indian government’s more recent effort to purge textbooks of references to the Muslim Mughal dynasty, the nation’s founding as a secular republic and Gujarat state’s anti-Muslim violence on Modi’s watch.
“It actually mirrors what we’re seeing here in the U.S. — these legislative efforts that have used government power to censor the diversity and complexity of our own country’s history — something we’ve seen the [Biden] administration speak out against,” Johnson said.
For Biden, the focus on shared democratic values was an awkward feature of Modi’s visit. Critics say his warm welcome of Modi undermines his messages about the threats to democracy posed by Trump, his 2020 — and potentially 2024 — Republican opponent.
At Modi’s welcoming ceremony Thursday, Biden made oblique references to human rights, hailing freedom of expression and religious pluralism as “core principles” for both countries. At a news conference that day, the president said universal human rights faced challenges “in each of our countries” but remained vital to both nations’ success. When asked by a reporter about the criticism that his administration was overlooking India’s crackdown on dissent, Biden said the two leaders had a “good discussion” about democratic values.
The administration’s feting of Modi stretched into Friday at the State Department, where Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken hosted a luncheon in the Indian leader’s honor. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra Nooyi and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nibbled on samosas as Harris and Blinken praised the U.S.-India partnership.
“Both countries wear the democracy label on their sleeves,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “It’s a challenge for the administration, because they would like to be able to use that democracy story in India as a way of underscoring the importance of U.S.-China competition and working with like-minded democracies to counter China — but they really can’t because of the democracy struggles in India.”
The U.S. should also acknowledge its own struggles with democracy, he added, pointing to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Even if the scale of the democratic backsliding in India is significantly higher than in the United States, I think the objective for the administration would be not to make it seem like it’s lecturing India,” Kugelman said. “That’s a point of sensitivity in New Delhi and among Indians on the whole — that the U.S. is a hypocrite.”
Biden administration officials have made clear that Washington’s economic and security partnership with New Delhi outweighs most other considerations. The U.S. holds more military exercises with India than with any other country, according to the State Department. And Washington became New Delhi’s largest trading partner in the 2022-23 fiscal year.
Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, called the deepening of ties with India a “hinge moment in geopolitics,” and said he didn’t think Modi’s lavish visit undercut the president’s broader narrative of a values-based foreign policy.
“We are dealing with the gathering and march of autocratic forces in ways that are not in the United States’ national interest, and … we do need to rally the values, norms and forces of democracy to push back against that,” he told a group of reporters Tuesday. “And that is a point the president has made consistently since he came into office. But he has also been clear that in that larger effort, we need constructive relationships with countries of all different traditions and backgrounds.”
Though Biden had vowed the U.S. would be a leading voice in the battle between autocracy and democracy, his foreign policy promises have crashed into the realities of the presidency. The White House has worked to maintain close relations with other heavy-handed foreign leaders with questionable records on democracy and human rights: Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
Most Indians recognize that the U.S. and India share economic and security interests, said Sushant Singh, a journalist and senior fellow at India’s Center for Policy Research. The welcome Modi received in Washington will only strengthen his hand at home, Singh added.
“Mr. Modi’s welcome by Mr. Biden and the personal praise for him allows him to leave a much stronger imprint on India, and in a certain sense change India’s course of the last 75 years, which was a secular, liberal, progressive democracy.”
The global rehabilitation of Modi’s image has been swift. The Indian leader was denied a U.S. visa in 2005, three years after the deadly riots in his home state left more than 1,000 people dead — most of them Muslims. (Modi has rejected allegations that he was involved, and a panel of India’s Supreme Court said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him).
But Modi’s rise to Indian prime minister in 2014 and the subsequent years have seen U.S. presidents and officials and other Western leaders court him. In April, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo called Modi a “visionary” after she visited India.
After a planned meeting of the so-called Quad alliance in Sydney was scrapped in May so that Biden could continue talks with congressional Republicans over the U.S. debt ceiling, the event transformed into a Modi spectacle. Before a crowd of thousands, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese likened the Indian leader to Bruce Springsteen, while a plane spelled out “Welcome Modi” in the sky.
Modi’s state visit — which also featured a private dinner with the Bidens — was a clear signal of New Delhi’s global clout. He will have a chance to showcase his success again when his country, which just overtook China as the world’s most populous nation, hosts the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi in September. Like Biden, Modi faces a reelection bid next year.
The spectacle in D.C. has emboldened Hindu nationalists, Singh noted.
On Thursday, former President Obama told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that it was “appropriate” for Biden to challenge Modi on protecting the rights of minority groups in India.
After one Twitter user then called for Obama’s arrest for “hurting sentiment,” the chief minister of the Indian state of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, responded by referring to the former president’s middle name, Hussein, falsely suggesting that Obama is Muslim.
India should focus on “taking care” of its own Muslims first, Sarma implied.
“There are many Hussain Obama[s] in India itself. We should prioritize taking care of them before considering going to Washington,” he tweeted. “The Assam police will act according to our own priorities.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.
Source : LA Times