The Conversation on Human Rights was Conveniently Buried During Modi’s US Visit
Though media coverage on Modi’s US visit was dominated by other issues, US concerns on human rights violations in India came up several times.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing US Congress. Credit: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing US Congress. Credit: PTI
This past week, Indian and American news agencies covered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington D.C. and the conversations he had with members of the US government and civil society. While Indian newspapers and television stations counted the number of standing ovations Modi received from the US Congress and published pictures of him signing autographs, they by and large failed to report the entire story.

Congressmen and women, civil society in the US and President Barack Obama all called on India to respect universal human rights, with many members of the Congress even advocating for the establishment of a formal dialogue on the subject. This part of the conversation – a call for improvement in democratic governance – cast a shadow over Modi’s entire visit and played a major role in the exchange. Nevertheless, it went largely unreported in the Indian press.

A meeting with Obama

Modi visited Washington from June 6-8, as the fourth leg of his five-nation tour. He met with Obama at the White House on the second day of his visit, marking the leaders’ third major bilateral summit.

The official joint statement released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary summarised the conversation between the leaders, with subsections detailing discussions on global leadership in climate change and clean energy, global non-proliferation, standing together against terrorism, bolstering economic ties, expanding technological cooperation, global leadership within the UN and building people to people ties. Specifically, the two world leaders “pledged to pursue new opportunities to bolster economic growth and sustainable development, promote peace and security at home and around the world, strengthen inclusive, democratic governance and respect for universal human rights, and provide global leadership on issues of shared interest” (emphasis added).

Responding to a question on whether human rights issues and religious intolerance came up during Modi’s talks with Obama, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said, “No, I do not believe the subject came up today in the discussions.”

However, a US official who briefed the press stated that these issues did come up when Modi and Obama discussed the rise of extremism and a deepening partnership rooted in shared democratic values. “While enhancing security measures, democratic freedoms must be protected. Issues related to the role of civil society organisations (and) violence against minority communities were discussed in the context of the rise of extremism, and how this can be tackled in a democratic society,” the official said.

Congressional concerns

The week before Modi’s visit to Washington, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator Ben Cardin paid a visit to Delhi. Cardin noted the remarkable progress made in India-US relations in the past two years, but also highlighted the lack of a formal dialogue on human rights. The US has long-established human rights dialogues with other countries, two examples being China and Vietnam, and Cardin stressed the need for a similar conversation to be started amongst the world’s two largest democracies. In 2015, US held the 19th human rights dialogue with China and the 20th session with Vietnam.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Cardin wrote, “India faces immense challenges posed in part by being the world’s second largest country, emerging from decades of debilitating poverty. Some religious minority communities face pressure and are subject to anti-conversion laws in some states. Non-governmental organizations face restrictions from increasing government interference. And most disturbingly, India is home to 18 million victims of human trafficking, the most in the world. These circumstances are not acceptable.” Cardin believes that a regular conversation on human rights issues is an “eminently reasonable thing for strategic partners to consider and embrace”.

In particular, Cardin highlighted the need for Modi to take ownership of the mandate before him: “Two years ago, Modi won the biggest election in the history of the world with a resounding mandate. His words celebrating religious tolerance, diversity and unity have inspired Indians and reinvigorated pride among the diaspora. With this mandate and commitment, he has the responsibility to ensure that his government and India’s state governments do everything possible to protect the rights of India’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Other lawmakers also said they were interested in what India is doing at home and that “they wanted to hear about real progress and not just the potential advantages of the relationship” when Modi addressed Congress in a joint-session on 8 June. The Washington Post stated that “a key area that many lawmakers said they hoped to hear Modi speak about is how India is addressing human rights – particularly concerning the treatment of women, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, and human trafficking.”

Modi’s relationship with the US has been affected by human rights abuses in the past. In 2005, he was denied a US visa for his association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which occurred under his watch as chief minister. The state department invoked a 1998 US law that holds foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” to revoke Modi’s tourist visa. Modi is the only person ever denied a visa to the US under this provision. As David Mulford, then US Ambassador to India, explained, “He was responsible for the performance of state institutions” at the time of the 2002 Gujarat riots, which were a violation of religious freedom. The official ban was only lifted after Modi became prime minister.

The Washington Post article went on to quote several congressmen and women who listed India’s human rights abuses as an area they were concerned with and wanted to hear Modi address in his speech during the joint session.

“One of the issues that I certainly hope to hear about is human slavery and how pervasive it is in India,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker.

“One thing I’d love to hear him address, that I’ve been deeply troubled by, is what has happened over the last several years in his country when it comes to women and rape and how that’s been treated,” senator Kelly Ayotte said. “They need to really address their criminal justice system.”

“Even though they don’t have a major play in that today, India should be one of the major players in a global effort to deal with the refugee crisis,” said senator David Perdue, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Moreover, 18 representatives wrote to house speaker Paul Ryan, who invited Modi to visit Congress, urging him to prioritise religious freedom and acts of intolerance during his meeting with the prime minister. Trent Franks and Betty McCollum led the group, writing, “Religious minority communities – including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs – have endured ongoing violence and harassment for decades in India, and continue to live in a climate where known perpetrators commit violence with impunity. It is in the best interest of the United States and India to reaffirm religious freedom as a shared value in this growing partnership, and ensure that conversation concerning justice and accountability for such horrific acts of violence continues.”

Although lawmakers were pressuring a dialogue on human rights abuses and religious intolerance, Modi skirted over these issues when speaking to Congress. Gant News, a CNN affiliate referenced his performance on this as “deft”. During his speech, Modi stated, “For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights.” As an article by Firstpost India said, “Back home, this statement from Modi would have…a few dead souls turn in their graves, for they lost their lives for the same words of which Modi spoke – freedom of faith and speech.”

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing entitled ‘Challenges and Opportunities: The Advancement of Human Rights in India’ on June 7, just hours after Modi met with Obama.

The hearing examined “the current state of human rights in India, challenges to fundamental freedoms, and opportunities for advancement.” The commission highlighted ongoing discrimination against Dalit communities, human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour, religious intolerance (specifically directed towards Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs ‘at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups’), the curtailing of foreign aid to non-governmental organisations supporting human rights and concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of association. Overall, the hearing sought to provide concrete recommendations on the most effective ways to advance and protect human rights in India, while keeping in the mind the current growth of Indo-US relations in other arenas.

Panel I consisted of members of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Panel II consisted of members of International Christian Concern, the Indian American Muslim Council, the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre and the Dalit American Federation. Activists on the two panels held the Modi government responsible for the current status of human rights in India.

Furthermore, congressman Trent Franks flagged the riots in Uttar Pradesh, violence in Odisha and the 2002 Gujarat riots, stating that because of the “current climate of impunity in India, many victims may never get justice”. Congressman Joseph R. Pitts stated that the economic growth in India “overlooks an array of troubling human rights concerns”.

The Indian government did not seem to flinch and instead downplayed the hearing, attempting to skirt past negative publicity and any dialogue on the issues. Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar stated that on the one hand Modi has been invited by Congress to speak, while on the other “some people are having some hearing”.

Meeting with US think tanks

While in Washington D.C., Modi also met with several US think tanks: Brookings Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for American Progress, Atlantic Council, Hudson Institute, Center for National Interest, Global Energy Capital, Carnegie Endowment, Asia Group, Pew Research Center, US Institute of Peace and Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

Indian ambassador Arun K. Singh told reporters, “the aim of the interaction was to understand from them how they see global trends in the coming years, the challenges and what (the) US and India could do together for the world.”

“Current global issues were discussed in the medium and longer term perspective. And we looked at opportunities and ways to be able to work together…In a way that would meet India’s national interest and of course would be of interest to the US,” Singh added, denying that this exercise was undertaken as part of perception management.

Looking Forward

Looking forward, one thing that is certain is that Indo-US relations are growing and this growth is likely to continue in the years to come. In the midst of these growing relations, it will be hard for the Modi government to continue to suppress the call for a conversation on universal human rights. Both US civil society and Congress have begun pushing for a formal human rights dialogue and the strengthening of democratic values in India. It will be crucial to continue monitoring the responsiveness of the Modi government and to continue fostering a demand for this dialogue not only abroad, but also domestically. As India prepares to submit its third ‘universal periodic review’ before the United Nations Human Rights Council next spring, the country should bear in mind the whole world, including the US, will be watching.