If India and the US really share values, Biden must call out Modi

A state visit is more an occasion for course correction than celebration. 

President Joe Biden speaks during a state dinner for India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, at the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(RNS) — Days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived for his historic state visit to the United States, many Indian Americans welcomed him with an “India Unity Day,” marching in 20 major cities across America. While the march’s organizers aimed to express their support of and pride in the prime minister, others believe that the state visit is an occasion for course correction more than celebration. 

No community of more than 2 million people can be seen as a monolith, and everyone in the Indian diaspora is entitled to their opinion about India’s trajectory under Modi and the relationship between the two countries. However, as members of the Hindu and Sikh communities — populations that make up many of India’s 1.4 billion people — we believe this is an essential moment to break through the nationalism that has masked a swift turn toward anti-democratic and authoritarian practices in India.

Put simply, now is the time for the world’s oldest democracy to provide the world’s largest democracy with some critical feedback. 

We are alarmed by the relentless attacks on the independent press in India. Internet and information blackouts have become an increasingly common tactic of government control, most recently in Manipur and Punjab. Under Modi, India has lost significant ground on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, dropping from 140 of 180 in 2014, when he took office, to 161 in 2023. In Modi’s India, the principles of free speech and expression that are vital to a healthy democracy are under attack.

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In addition, Modi is restricting the right to assemble, including during 2020’s historic farmer’s protest, in which the government was condemned for using draconian tactics to disperse crowds and suppress dissent.

Political critics in India are being targeted and arrested under anti-terror laws, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Public Safety Act. These laws allow authorities to detain people without a fair trial or due process and to hold them in preventive detention on the mere assumption that they may pose a threat in the future.

Many have been recognized as prisoners of conscience by institutions such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They should be released immediately. Those who have actually committed crimes should be charged promptly and given a fair trial.

Religious minorities bear the brunt of this suppression and marginalization. USCIRF has reported extensively on this issue for years, calling out harmful rhetoric and policies and urging the U.S. State Department to designate India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom. The recommendation has gone unheeded.

India’s inherent status as a pluralistic society is at risk due to rising nationalist fervor in some corners of the population — a circumstance not unlike that facing the United States, whose vibrant diversity faces backlash from resurgent white supremacy today. 

Indeed, some argue that the United States, plagued by its own issues, has no right to criticize Modi or India. But perfection is not, and has never been, a prerequisite for moral leadership. Democratic backsliding at home is no excuse to abdicate the responsibility for demanding human rights for all. Time and again, President Biden has expressed his commitment to upholding human rights and championing democracy, from Brazil to Turkey to Hungary.

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As part of this effort, the United States must take this state visit as an opportunity to hold Modi accountable for these steps backward.

The U.S.-Indian relationship should not solely be grounded in trade considerations or geopolitical grand strategy, but in our two countries’ shared values of democracy, freedom and human rights — and the impact that violating these values has on individuals with ties to both countries. Civil rights violations have a tangible human cost. By nurturing an environment that upholds the dignity and well-being of individuals on both sides, we signal that human rights are not a tool for political maneuvering. 

By addressing concerns such as the suppression of freedoms, political prisoners and the treatment of religious minorities, the United States can play a pivotal role in fostering positive change and strengthening accountability for human rights on the global stage. Only this approach will allow us to establish a partnership that reflects our shared interests and creates a brighter future for all involved.

(Sunita Viswanath is the executive director of Hindus for Human Rights. Sim J. Singh Attariwala is the senior manager of policy and advocacy at the Sikh Coalition. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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