By: Noor Hasan, Isra Qadri, Sahir Muhammad, MPAC Policy Fellows
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India — once proudly a pluralistic nation that now finds itself ethnically and religiously torn — is invited by President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy for an Official State Visit to “celebrate the enduring friendship and speak to the global challenges our countries both face.” The official visit includes a State Dinner with the President and First Lady and an invitation to address the U.S. Congress. While this bilateral engagement is intended to honor the U.S. and India’s alliance, the focus however, should be on the erosion of democracy and human rights in India.
In a political environment where efforts to commemorate the 75th Nakba — the mass displacement of Palestinians — is met with accusations of antisemitism by House Speaker McCarthy, the hypocrisy in the United States’ decision to host a politician with an active hand in oppressing, harassing, surveilling, and violently targeting religious minorities is alarming. Prime Minister Modi is at the forefront of a government that grossly violates the human rights of India’s religious minority communities, particularly Muslims, through the promotion and enforcement of state and national-level laws that promote a Hindu-nationalist agenda. This celebratory, official invitation to Prime Minister Modi raises concerns regarding the foundation of the United States’ core principles and constitutional values based on the protection of human rights.
Perhaps a friendship with Prime Minister Modi speaks not to Washington’s hypocrisy but to its’ seemingly selective human rights agenda. Instead of celebrating the U.S.’s friendship with India, a state that violates the principles of peaceful coexistence and freedom at the foundation of American values, this visit should be used to reevaluate how the U.S. and India can uplift human rights and overarching democratic goals; beyond reevaluating our role in promoting the Indian government while they allow human rights violations to occur, perhaps we must turn inward and reevaluate our own standards for human rights and democracy.
India is home to 1.4 billion people, and Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population – Muslims 14.2 percent; Christians 2.3 percent; and Sikhs 1.7 percent. India’s constitution refers to the nation as a secular, democratic republic. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi continues to endorse policies to create a prominently Hindu state at the expense of the freedom and liberties of religious minorities. Modi’s role in this effort dates back to the 2002 Gujarat Riots during his term as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The riots resulted from Hindu-Muslim conflict and led to the Muslim community being unjustly killed, raped, and looted. Nearly 2,000 individuals, mostly Muslims, were brutally killed, and an estimated 150,000 displaced. Roughly 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship were destroyed.
In one case during the 2002 Gujarat riots, 21-year-old Bilkis Bano was gang-raped by a mob that killed 14 of her family members, including her infant daughter. In 2008, Bano’s rapists were sentenced to life in prison for their crimes; however, in August 2022, Prime Minister Modi approved their release on the basis of good behavior; following their release they were celebrated as heroes by Hindu nationalists. Modi was widely criticized for his failure to end the violence, condemn the perpetrators, and support the Muslim community during and after the riots. Further, he banned a BBC documentary criticizing his responsibility for the violence. His alleged complicity in the riots led to the denial of a visa by the U.S. State Department in 2005. As Prime Minister, Modi’s problematic leadership has only escalated, but the American government’s attitude has not shifted accordingly.
Concerns over democratic backsliding in India are on the rise, especially after the abrogation of Article 370 which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. In anticipation of both domestic and international backlash to the repeal, the Indian government shut down internet services for a record eighteen months, prevented activists and U.S government officials from visiting the region, and censored journalists who attempted to report on human rights and religious freedom violations. Kashmir remains under oppressive military occupation with no plan in sight to reinstate special status or any degree of independent rule. Journalists and human rights activists—often members or advocates of minority groups— have been surveilled, harassed, detained, and prosecuted by officials for expressing criticism of the government, often through laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Sedition Law under the guise of national security.
UAPA along with the FCRA, and CAA are the most common policies used to systematically oppress and other marginalized groups in India through the stripping of citizenship and resources. The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) allows for expedited citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians from neighboring Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan. The CAA in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) marks the first time religious basis has been used to grant or strip citizenship in what apparently seems to be an effort to minimize the growth and voter impact of India’s 200 million Muslim population. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) restricts humanitarian organizations from advocating for marginalized populations; it has used baseless claims of forced conversion activity to suspend human rights and faith organizations.
Religious and caste-based discrimination, specifically targeting Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Dalits often manifests itself through the support and advocacy of oppressive state-level laws. These include anti-cow slaughter laws, anti-conversion laws, the 2020 proposed agricultural reform laws disproportionately affecting the majority Sikh farmer community in Punjab, and the 2022 Hijab ban implemented in the state of Kerala restricting female Muslim students. The BJP government’s continued championing and enforcement of these laws, and court ordered demolition of homes and religious sites of minorities, has created a culture of impunity for Hindu nationalist mobs and vigilante groups to violently target Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Dalits. In a constitutionally secular society, such crimes should be condemned and legally prosecuted, instead, they are publicly promoted by BJP officials and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a hard-line Hindu organization closely affiliated with Prime Minister Modi and the BJP—who openly encourage their followers to commit heinous acts under the guise of protecting Hinduism.
Most recently, Prime Minister Modi’s silence during ethnic strife in Manipur — leaving more than seventy people dead and hundreds wounded — speaks to his prioritization of ethnic minorities’ ability to live harmoniously in the multiethnic state. In a society that seems to move further and further away from religious freedom and fundamental democratic values, how can Modi’s leadership be seen as a cornerstone for democracy?
Prime Minister Modi’s orchestration of grave human rights violations throughout India is inconsistent with American and international standards of democracy. Rapists and criminals are being released from prisons while journalists and human rights advocates are being put behind bars for practicing their constitutional freedoms. Clearly, Modi’s government is not guided by India’s constitutional promises or international democratic ideals but by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. It is highly contradictory that Prime Minister Modi is being celebrated as a champion of democracy amidst human rights atrocities being committed under his rule. The U.S. Department of State and Congress must use this visit to address the grave ongoing infringements on human rights. Otherwise, turning a blind eye to such behavior from our “friends” will only encourage the spread of democratic backsliding on a larger, more detrimental scale.