Why Does Ro Khanna Want Modi to Address Congress?

Why Does Ro Khanna Want Modi to Address Congress?

Why Does Ro Khanna Want Modi to Address Congress?

Despite his condemnations of Hindu nationalism, Representative Ro Khanna pushed for Modi to speak to a joint session of Congress and has received more than $110,000 from Hindu nationalist figures in the US.

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On June 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be in Washington, D.C., for his first official state visit. And US political elites are busy preparing for his fete. The prime minister will address a joint session of Congress and attend a state dinner in his honor at the White House. This will only be President Joe Biden’s third state dinner. Just a few years ago—from 2005 to 2014—the US barred Modi from entering the country because of his alleged role as Gujarat’s chief minister in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which nearly 2,000 Indians, most of whom were Muslim, were murdered.

Representatives Ro Khanna (D) and Michael Waltz (R), cochairs of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, secured Modi’s address by writing a letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, urging him to invite the prime minister.

Khanna’s role in Congress’s celebration of Modi disappointed many human rights advocates and supporters. The Indian American Muslim Council called on Khanna, who represents a district in the Bay Area, to rescind his letter, explaining that allowing the prime minister “to speak before Congress will help to legitimize Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalist politics and the systematic persecution of religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, under his rule.”

In 2019, Khanna called for rejecting Hindu nationalism, tweeting, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians.”

Now four years later, he has helped secure Modi’s address to Congress.

“It’s disheartening to see Representative Khanna take the lead in asking the congressional leadership to invite Prime Minister Modi to address a joint session of the Congress,” Raju Rajagopal, a Bay Area activist and cofounder of advocacy group Hindus for Human Rights, told me

“As one of only two Indian American congresspeople to speak out against Hindu nationalism”—along with Representative Pramila Jayapal—“Khanna had symbolized the hopes and aspirations of India’s over 200 million religious minorities, who are in a virtual state of siege under Modi’s rule,” he said. “To now welcome Modi in the halls of Congress and completely ignore the escalating hate and violence under Modi’s rule, undermines Khanna’s own progressive credentials.”

Khanna has publicly condemned Hindutva, a Hindu supremacist movement, but his congressional campaigns have also received more than $110,000 from individuals associated with Hindu nationalist groups since 2011. When I asked about his decision to advocate for Modi’s presence at Congress, Khanna reaffirmed the Biden administration’s perspective of “India as a strategic ally” to the United States.

He told me, “I believe any elected prime minister of India at this moment from whatever party should be afforded the honor of addressing Congress, meeting the president, and a state dinner. I don’t think it’s about the person as much as it is about the office. It is about respecting the nation of India.”

Not all progressive members of Congress agree with him. Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Jamie Raskin said they will boycott Modi’s joint address. Jayapal will attend and will escort Modi to Congress but organized a letter urging Biden to “discuss the need to protect human rights and democratic values in India as he meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

When I asked Jayapal about her decision to be in Modi’s escort team, she also emphasized the importance of engaging with India. Jayapal said if she has the opportunity, she will speak to Modi about her concerns and that she hoped the letter would encourage Biden to publicly comment on the need for India to address human rights.

Modi’s visit comes amid state persecution of religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, as well as growing authoritarianism of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Hindu religious extremists have called for genocide against Indian Muslims, attacked mosques and churches, and demolished homes. The Biden administration has been largely silent on these issues, choosing to try and strengthen the US-India relationship and deepen the ties between the countries’ military and technology sectors. With Modi’s visit, for instance, Washington has been pushing Delhi to sign off on a military deal for dozens of US-made armed drones.

Several top US officials have even praised the Modi regime. In April, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo described Modi as “unbelievable, visionary” and “the most popular world leader.” In the same month, Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, applauded press freedom in India: “You have India as a democracy in part because you have a free press that really works.”

These statements, however, contrast with the findings of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which ranked India 161 out of 180 countries due to its crackdown on the press.

Arjun S. Sethi, a community activist, civil rights lawyer, and author based in Washington, D.C., told me, “Under the Modi administration, we have seen countless human rights abuses against Muslims and other minorities, atrocities committed in Kashmir, and infringements on association, press, and speech.”

Parts of the US government do acknowledge widespread human rights violations in India. In May, the State Department released an International Religious Freedom report that highlighted the violence against religious minorities, discriminatory laws, and demolitions of Muslim homes. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) echoed these concerns in its 2023 annual report. Last year, India’s government passed legislation against the wearing of hijabs, religious conversion, cow slaughter, and interfaith relationships. These policies specifically discriminate against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis, the Indigenous people of South Asia.

For four consecutive years, the USCIRF has recommended that the US government designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern” and impose strategic sanctions on Indian government officials and agencies involved in religious freedom violations.

The Biden administration’s decision to extend an invitation to Modi indicates a preference for trade and strategic gains over addressing human rights concerns.

Tahil Sharma, an interfaith activist from Southern California, told me it is hypocritical for politicians to espouse the importance of democratic values while celebrating Modi. “You are talking about pushing back against a narrative that doesn’t support pluralism or that doesn’t support democracy; then you give a platform to someone whose political party has done nothing but the opposite of promoting pluralism and democracy,” Sharma said.

Over the last 12 years, Khanna’s congressional campaign has received at least $110,036 from individuals associated with US-based Hindu nationalist groups. Bharat Barai and his wife donated $36,000. (Bharai has also donated $1,250 to Jayapal.) Barai’s most recent donation to Khanna was in October 2022. Barai, a Chicago-based oncologist, is often described as a “confidante” of Modi. He sits on the advisory board of the Chicago chapter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, a Hindu far-right group and US offshoot of VHP India, a Hindu far-right group that has been at the forefront of violence against religious minorities in India. After Modi’s ban, Barai hosted video conferences to boost Modi’s popularity in the diaspora.

When I asked Khanna about his history of accepting donations from Barai, he said that he has never had a conversation with Barai about his views on Indian politics. Khanna added that he has thousands of donors in the South Asian community and that he doesn’t “ask each of those people what their views are on Indian politics.”

When I asked if Khanna will continue accepting money from Bharat Barai and other Hindu nationalist leaders in the US, Khanna’s spokesperson said, “Representative Khanna has thousands of Indian American supporters and has been vocal about his stance against nationalism and for pluralism.”

Khanna has also received donations from key members of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Hindu right-wing advocacy organization. Arjun Bhagat, a member of HAF’s board of directors, has donated $27,100, with his most recent donation of $5,000 in March 2023. Recently, HAF has been spearheading a campaign to oppose the California SB 403 Bill, which would make caste a protected category against discrimination.

Khanna has not established a strong position on SB 403. When asked about SB 403 by Equality Labs founder Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Khanna stated that he “strongly opposes any form of caste discrimination” but also stated that the bill needs to be “fairly enforced” so it ”doesn’t selectively profile any community.” Some Hindu groups, including HAF, say SB 403 would expose Hindu Americans to racial profiling and harassment.

Khanna told me that he never takes a position on state bills, and reiterated that he “strongly opposes caste discrimination” and believes that the details of the bill “should be fair to all groups.” I then asked Khanna if he believes that SB 403 would unfairly persecute Hindu Americans—the dominant narrative on the American Hindu right. Khanna said, “Again, I don’t comment on the details of the bill, but I oppose caste discrimination.”

Khanna’s indecision regarding SB 403, says Karthikeyan Shanmughan of Ambedkar King Study Circle, is not unexpected. He says that upper-caste Indians dominate discussions about the South Asian diaspora and that this suppresses conversations about caste oppression. But Shanmughan said the growing anti-caste movement in America, which is led by those of caste-oppressed groups, is forcing Indian American politicians to take a stance. Political leaders, he said, “can’t continue their ‘manipulative’ position of fighting for racial equality and being neutral on caste discrimination.”

Deepa Iyer, a racial justice activist, tweeted at Khanna for supporting Modi’s address to Congress, criticizing the congressman for “providing a platform in this way.” Khanna responded by saying that he “will always stand for pluralism, liberal democracy and human rights while also calling for the strengthening of the US-India relationship.”

Some of Khanna’s constituents are grappling with the actions of their congressman. According to Anu Mandavilli, who lives in Khanna’s district and is a member of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, Khanna’s Bay Area district has one of the highest concentrations of South Asian Americans and Indian Americans in the country. While Khanna may need to listen to his Hindutva-leaning constituents as their elected representative, Mandavilli said, he still needs to fight their hateful views. She urged Khanna to endorse Jayapal’s letter asking Biden to raise human rights concerns in his conversations with Modi and demand accountability from the prime minister.

“Khanna must assure his constituents from caste-oppressed groups as well as his Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and other constituents from minority religious communities that he understands the threat that Hindu nationalism poses in the Bay Area as well as more broadly in California and in the US,” Mandavilli said. “He must initiate dialogues with those communities as well as with Hindus opposed to Hindutva and other progressive constituents to hear their concerns and learn from their experiences.”

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