Modi’s Visit to the US Whitewashes India’s Far-Right Violence

Modi’s Visit to the US Whitewashes India’s Far-Right Violence

Modi’s Visit to the US Whitewashes India’s Far-Right Violence

Young Indian-Americans—and Americans at large—cannot ignore President Biden’s tacit endorsement of repression, authoritarianism, and religious intolerance.

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On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in New York ahead of his first official state visit to the United States in almost a decade. The trip will include a dinner with President Joe Biden, a congressional address, and an invitation-only event to speak to the Indian-American diaspora.

Leading up to the visit, President Biden praised Modi enthusiastically, telling the PM that he was “too popular” and “demonstrating that democracies matter.” The statement is ironic: Ever since Modi took power in 2014 as the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India has experienced what is widely described as democratic backsliding, characterized by anti-minority and caste-based violence along with brutal crackdowns on dissent.

Biden is not the only one warmly welcoming the Indian PM; thousands of Indian-Americans are expected to come to Washington, D.C., for the PM’s arrival. The Indian’s presence in the US is anything but apolitical, and most Indian-Americans are supportive of Modi and the BJP. Despite its pluralistic origins, the Indian-American population in the US consists disproportionately of a highly self-selected group: When immigration skyrocketed after the tech boom of the 1990s, the hegemonic majority came from education and caste-privileged Hindu backgrounds. Today, Indian-Americans are one of the fastest-growing and highest-earning ethnic groups in the US, helping to influence the affairs of the world’s most populous country.

The Biden administration’s messaging on Modi has been alarming. “India is a vibrant democracy. Anybody that happens to go to New Delhi can see that for themselves,” claimed John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, in a recent White House press briefing. Last summer, I worked in New Delhi and witnessed the harassment and suppression of journalists and activists from Modi’s government firsthand. The Centre for Equity Studies—like many civil society groups—was targeted by policies created by the Modi government to stifle foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations. On my first day in the NewsClick office, one of my coworkers pointed to an empty spot in the corner. “That’s Gautam Navlakha’s desk,” she said, referencing the prominent journalist and human rights defender. “You won’t see him, though, because he’s been under arrest since 2018.”

American politicians continue to whitewash an obviously violent reality, often fueled by diaspora-based stakeholders. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat in California, has lobbied for sending increased security aid to India, citing the country’s crucial role in supporting the United States’ interests with regards to China. Likewise, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) lobbied US lawmakers to stifle Representative Pramila Jayapal’s condemnation of the Modi government’s revocation of the semi-autonomous status granted to Indian-occupied Kashmir.

The relationship between the Indian right and the diaspora has endured for decades. The BJP itself belongs to a larger umbrella of political and civil society organizations referred to as the “Sangh,” born out of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing volunteer organization formed in 1925. The aim of the Sangh is to promote Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist project in India. But beyond this vast network of diaspora-based ethnonationalist organizations, there is also the potential for young Indian-Americans to address the current political state of India that threatens democracy and justice worldwide. While Modi enjoys support from most Indian-Americans, younger generations are challenging this trend, as a greater share disapproves of the PM, according to data from polling firm YouGov.

In the early 20th century, long before the hegemonic understanding of the “Indian-American” identity was formed, South Asian immigrants from a range of religious and caste backgrounds mobilized in diaspora through groups like the Ghadar Party to demand independence from colonial oppression. In the 1980s–during the age of Third World Internationalism—college students initiated the South Asian American movement, motivated by an urge to bridge identities in the face of rising right-wing nationalism in India.

In 2005, Indian-American Muslim organizers, led by the Indian American Muslim Council, successfully lobbied for Modi to be denied entry to the US for “severe violations of religious freedom” because of his role in the Gujarat pogrom, where nearly 1,000 Muslims were killed. More recently, during a 2019 rally with the PM and Donald Trump in Houston called “Howdy, Modi,” thousands of activists gathered outside of NRG Stadium to protest his visit. And in February, Seattle became the first city in the US to ban caste discrimination, after relentless efforts from Dalit-led anti-caste groups.

Our generation has a responsibility to carry on this tradition. For years, diasporic voices—spearheaded by Muslim and Dalit organizers—have been persistent in addressing the ethnonationalism and casteism that has become a feature of “Indianness” in the homeland and abroad. Many of these groups are leading the fight on the Hill and in human rights spaces, pushing back against their conservative counterparts and bringing to light a different Indian-American voice.

Groups like the Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, and Desis Rising Up and Moving—alongside other community-based South Asian organizations—have been at the forefront of protests condemning the antidemocratic and Hindu supremacist violence perpetrated by the PM. “Modi and his fascist regime have been decimating Human Rights, especially for minorities, in India and have been exporting their Hindutva ideology across the globe,” read a protest announcement for Wednesday. The groups have organized rallies in New York City and D.C. and created a solidarity fundraiser featuring diaspora-based artists. Human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have partnered to host a screening of the banned BBC documentary on Modi’s instrumental role in the Gujarat pogrom. Likewise, the Coalition for Reclaiming Indian Democracy—consisting of a number of Indian-American faith-based, anti-caste, and allied organizations—is holding a press conference on Modi’s human rights record towards minorities and dissenters.

Too often, the burden of this work is left to the most affected. Growing up as an Indian-American from the hegemonic majority demographic—benefiting from caste privilege and raised in a tech hub—Indian politics felt largely distant from my own life. For myself and many others like me, culture and identity was deeply decontextualized from the privileges that shaped our experiences. By accepting a depoliticized Indian-American identity—sequestering “Indianness” to realms of culture and aesthetics without grappling with the role of caste, ethnicity, and religion in creating power structures within the diaspora—we dismiss the systemic violence in which many of us are already complicit.

Of course, I do not mean to position the US as morally superior, which would ignore America’s own past and present built on settler colonialism and anti-Blackness. But for all its rhetoric around “democracy” and “human rights,” there is an inexcusable free pass given to Modi’s violence by the Biden administration and American liberals. This selective attention is inextricable from a robust defense relationship: over $4 billion in arms sales to India in the past decade, along with FBI-run trainings for police in Indian-occupied Kashmir, the world’s most militarized region.

When Modi arrives at the White House, no doubt photos of the two heads of state embracing will flood the media. Liberals and conservatives alike will glorify the unity between the “world’s largest” and the “world’s oldest” democracies. Violence, repression, and authoritarianism will be ignored in the name of friendship, progress, and security. Instead, young Indian-Americans—and Americans at large—must join the existing movements that are taking action against this tacit endorsement of violence. It is up to us, as young people, to begin addressing this violence, in honor of our history as an immigrant community, in solidarity with one another, and in defense of democracy everywhere.

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