Criticizing Narendra Modi’s U.S. Visit Could Have Serious Consequences

American critics of India's leader say his movement's authoritarian bent is chilling dissent over his alarming approach to minorities and democratic principles.

Hundreds of activists are working to challenge the delicate choreography of controversial Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit to the U.S. ― while risking backlash from the authoritarian strains within Modi’s movement, which are often hostile to criticism of their leader.

Modi, who arrived in the U.S. on Wednesday at President Joe Biden’s invitation, will receive a 21-gun welcome salute and a state dinner Thursday for the first time since becoming prime minister. Top lawmakers have also invited him to become the first-ever Indian leader to address two joint sessions of Congress.

The honors contrast with the treatment that U.S. critics of Modi’s rule say they are enduring: government intimidation, online trolling, legal harassment and effective bans on travel to India, where many of them still have family and friends. As Modi’s government has pressured journalists, human rights groups and opposition leaders at home, he and his allies are making it harder to draw attention to India’s alarming trajectory abroad, activists argue.

“Anyone who has roots in or ties to India is scared of the fact that a single word could result in reprisal,” said Raqib Hameed Naik, a journalist in exile in the U.S. who was born in the Indian-held portion of the disputed Kashmir region.

The challenge of questioning Modi’s movement even bedevils some of the most powerful players in the diaspora: leading Indian American politicians.

In 2019, India’s foreign minister refused to meet with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) over her advocacy for Kashmir. Ahead of Modi’s current visit, Jayapal was the only one of five Indian Americans in Congress ― all House Democrats, who also include Ami Bera and Ro Khanna of California, Raja Krishnamoorthy of Illinois and Shri Thanedar of Michigan ― to sign a letter asking Biden to raise the issue of human rights with the prime minister.

“Elected officials are definitely reticent to make really strong remarks on India because they are afraid of this backlash,” said Ria Chakrabarty of Hindus for Human Rights.

A progressive congressional aide told HuffPost: “In some ways it’s harder to work on Modi than Palestine.”

Bera “raises human rights concerns directly in his conversations with Indian government officials,” a spokesperson wrote to HuffPost. One of the other lawmakers, who requested anonymity to protect relationships, said, “I’ll speak on human rights but didn’t think this was the right vehicle and neither did the White House.”

Modi’s critics want U.S. officials to engage with India and acknowledge its importance while urging the nation to abide by its stated commitment to democratic principles, including freedom of expression. Right now, they say, the Biden administration and legislators from both parties are giving Modi largely unadulterated praise that makes more rights violations inevitable and sustains an atmosphere of fear that hurts American citizens.

“Because there haven’t been consequences for the Indian government, they’re emboldened,” said Kiran Kaur Gill, the executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

According to advocates for a tougher U.S. approach to Modi, the retaliation against their work is driving some people in their movement to be less public or pull back altogether and disproportionately hurting communities who are already marginalized in India and the Indian diaspora, such as women and religious minorities. Eventually, the trend could have foreign policy ramifications, distorting America’s debate over a country that is an increasingly vital U.S. partner and a leader who seeks to grow even more powerful through a third term in office.

“There’s a desire for the U.S. and India to be stronger allies,” Gill said. “While there are obvious strategic reasons for that, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still imperative to address these human rights issues, these issues of flouting democratic norms.”

Raising The Price Of Dissent

India elected Modi in 2014. His huge mandate and his pledges of rapid economic growth immediately drew international attention. But so did his disdain for dissenting voices, his promotion of Hindu nationalism in the diverse, historically secular country, and his role in huge anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

In office, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have overseen raids on media organizations and nonprofits ― most recently the BBC ― and an increase in violence against Muslims and other Indian minorities. Additionally, the government has tightened control over Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, and meted out a record number of internet shutdowns while casting protesters and Modi’s political opponents as enemies of India.

“He’s a very rigid, authoritarian, communal and divisive leader who strongly believes in a no-questions-asked approach,” Naik said.

Naik has experienced how that approach is not limited to India’s borders.

After he covered Modi’s 2019 crackdown in Kashmir, Naik left for the U.S. in 2020, where he began running a hate crime tracker called Hindutva Watch. Since then, Indian authorities have contacted his parents 11 times to discuss his work, he said, in one instance summoning his father to an army camp. Former friends and colleagues stopped talking to Naik.

A year and a half ago, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be a senior police officer in India and saying he had a file on Naik, the reporter recalled. He later received a text message purportedly from a representative of India’s Intelligence Bureau asking when he was coming back to the country so the two could meet in person.

“The moment I will land in India, I’ll be in shackles,” Naik said.

“A lot of people in the diaspora who criticize Modi, they fear the same,” he continued, saying that feeling often spurs self-censorship.

India’s embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The Indian government can also use more subtle ways to punish critics internationally.

Many Indian Americans are worried about losing their Overseas Citizenship of India cards, a form of permanent visa. (India does not permit dual citizenship.) In 2021, the Indian government reportedly canceled OCI cards for people who supported demonstrations by farmers, and in 2019, it revoked the card from Aatish Taseer, a high-profile writer critical of Modi.

“If they can go after [Taseer], it’s a good signal,” Suchitra Vijayan, another writer, told HuffPost. “It’s almost impossible for people who are not as famous as him to actually fight …it sent such chilling shockwaves around the community.”

Rasheed Ahmed, the executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council, told HuffPost he had heard of Indian diplomats writing to individuals saying their cards needed to be reviewed.

“There is a considerable level of apprehension – beyond apprehension, fear – in the Indian Muslim community. If there is a protest, people say they don’t want to go,” Ahmed continued, noting community members’ anxieties about continued access to family members or business interests in India.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome India Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House on Wednesday. Modi will join Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Thursday for bilateral talks before speaking to a joint session of Congress.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome India Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House on Wednesday. Modi will join Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Thursday for bilateral talks before speaking to a joint session of Congress.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The effort to discourage criticism of Modi can blur the lines between India’s government, his political movement and his unofficial defenders.

In February, a Twitter account called @DisInfoLab attacked Sunita Viswanath, a U.S.-based activist who runs Hindus for Human Rights, as an agent of George Soros, the billionaire donor to good government watchdogs and liberal politicians who is a global bogeyman for conservatives. Earlier this month, prominent BJP operative Amit Malviya began recirculating the claim, tacking on a suggestion that Viswanath works with Indian nemesis Pakistan.

The overall environment is one of feeling watched and vulnerable, activists say, with people disturbed by Modi’s actions regularly assessing how they can safely channel their discontent ― given the potential danger that they or people close to them could face just because of something like a video of them circulating in pro-Modi WhatsApp groups.

Those feelings are amplified by signs that Modi supporters in India are cooperating with ultraconservative members of Indian immigrant communities to quash criticism, Chakrabarty noted. “People have experienced death threats from addressing quote unquote touchy issues within the diaspora,” she said, citing the example of a California state senator who sought to bar discrimination on the basis of the Hindu concept of caste. “These are pretty coordinated campaigns.”

In 2021, Vijayan’s organization, the Polis Project, worked on a conference titled Dismantling Global Hindutva that drew 1.8 million emails’ worth of complaints to universities and people involved in the project, she said, causing some participants to discuss calling the plan off for safety reasons.

“Imagine an academic conference held online and curated by predominantly American universities being intimidated in a way that they wanted to cancel,” Vijayan said.

Weathering Pro-Modi Storms

For many Modi observers, the work of boosting awareness about his policies and seeking American pressure for changes are too important to abandon.

“You cannot preempt authoritarian regimes ― you cannot stay silent because you think something might happen… I would also be very wary of just being silent,” Vijayan said.

Deepa Iyer, a longtime activist in the South Asian American community, sees a bright spot in the willingness of a broader range of groups to speak out about changes in India.

“The more people who speak out, the greater safety there is,” she said.

She and Chakrabarty noted how upper-caste Hindus are particularly conscious of their position. They may be more shielded from criticism or more focused on less visible activism, like trying to explain worrying developments to family members.

Another factor that organizers consider in community members’ willingness to speak out is whether their loved ones in India live in BJP-run states and what immigration status they hold in the U.S., Chakrabarty noted.

“We build towards this choir of voices … there’s real power when you’ve got a surge,” Iyer said.

Washington’s broader conversation about Modi echoes the discussions among activists in some ways: whether to be public or not on the issue of human rights.

Naik argued that the sense of intimidation he and other Modi critics feel shows the importance of clear U.S. action.

“This is a clear example of transnational repression,” he said, using a term the Biden administration frequently deploys in critiquing other nations’ approach to overseas critics. “They have taken action against the Chinese, they have taken action against the Iranians… unfortunately it has been the case that they only use [the relevant policies] against their adversaries.”

Biden’s team argues that private persuasion is the best way to encourage India to change course. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, a senior administration official said the president raises rights issues to Modi “with respect” and “humility,” acknowledging that the U.S. has its own shortcomings as a way to create “a dialogue based on mutual challenges rather than simply hectoring, lecturing or scolding.

“That kind of interaction, that kind of respectful approach, tends to be more effective,” the official said.

But the lack of concrete signs that Modi is easing his approach to minorities and critics leaves many observers unimpressed with that line ― and determined to keep raising the alarm despite the toll.

“If the general thinking is to address issues behind the scenes, it has clearly not worked,” Gill said.

A senior congressional aide described the letter from Jayapal and more than 70 other lawmakers as a symptom of confusion about Biden’s approach.

There is not a clear public understanding of how the values discussion is figuring in the broader bilateral relationship with India. That’s both the U.S. administration’s fault but also the Indian government’s,” the aide said. “The internal struggle is how do you get India to move the ball on these issues… we should be talking about all of the things, and if there’s a clear sense that values is part of the broader discussion, then you’d see less of a public-facing criticism on human rights and democracy issues.”

Gill summarized the yearning for more visible action.

“If India is calling itself the world’s largest democracy, we need to hold them to democratic norms and standards.”


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