In a surprise state visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington DC on June 21. He was only the third world leader to get such royal treatment by President Joe Biden since his election in 2020.
Modi, who tries to avoid unscripted moments and has presided over a steady decline in press freedom in his country, has never held a solo news conference and often avoids questions by deferring to others on stage with him.
Biden and Modi each answered the same two questions: one from an Indian journalist who asked Modi about climate change, the other from a Wall Street Journal reporter who pressed Modi on human rights concerns. It was the first time Modi had fielded a question at a news conference since he came to power in 2014.
The news conference was a scaled-down affair compared to those usually held as part of a state visit.
Modi took full advantage of the pomp and circumstance to strengthen India’s standing without giving any concession to Biden’s foreign policy and goals.
At the press conference, Modi reconfirmed his position on Ukraine (for neutrality and negotiations), while falsely claiming India is a “democracy” that does not discriminate against ethnic or caste minorities.
Biden ignored the question about India’s human rights situation, never mentioning the anti-Muslim and anti-minority polices of the Modi government
Modi was denied a visa to enter the US, about 20 years ago, due to his anti-Muslim pogroms in the state of Gujarat where he was chief minister at the time.
The ban was only lifted in 2014 when his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took control of Parliament.
The RSS rejects secularism. Its initial objective was to provide character training and instill "Hindu discipline" in order to unite the Hindu community and establish a Hindu nation.
It identifies with fascist movements in Europe such as Italy’s Mussolini’s Fascist Party. The RSS seeks to spread the ideology Hindutva to "strengthen" the Hindu community and promotes an ideal of upholding Indian culture and its civilizational values.
One of the most important goals of the Hindu nationalist movement is the elimination of secularism in the Constitution, something it sees as a foreign, Western concept.
Biden and his government ignore Modi’s record and are focussed on getting India on board with the US-Indo-Pacific goal of containing China.
India and China have had border conflicts for decades and are economic competitors. Both countries have solid ties with Russia. Russia is India’s largest oil supplier as of 2023 and its main supplier of military hardware.
Both countries are members of the BRICs (the developing economies of Brazil, India, Russia and China) and support the policies of the Global South, which seek to go around US and Western imperialism’s domination of finance and trade.
Modi made clear India has no intention of changing its global policies, including towards Russia and China.
India has banned Huawei and TikTok, but does not back the aggressive US policy regarding China, and has no official relations with Taiwan.
During Modi’s visit, Biden (re)announced that Air India would be buying new Boeing aircraft for its fleet, its largest order ever in South Asia, saying this will bring jobs to the US.
Biden also said General Electric (GE) would build jet engines for India’s military inside India. Modi welcomed the deal and – if approved by Congress -- it will be the first time the US company will transfer its technology to Indian firms.
This big victory for Modi comes as the US targets Chinese tech companies for “stealing” US technology.
Who is Narendra Modi?
Maya Jasanoff, a Harvard professor of history and Indian American, wrote in The New York Times, on June 22, that Modi is “[a]rmed with a sharp-edged doctrine of Hindu nationalism … [and] … has presided over the nation’s broadest assault on democracy, civil society, and minority rights in at least 40 years”.
While delivering “prosperity and national pride to some” Modi has delivered “authoritarianism and repression of many others that should disturb us all”.
Jasanoff wrote that “India’s once-proud claim to being a free democratic society has collapsed on many fronts” since Modi took power.
While the Indian government rejects these metrics as “perception”, wrote Jasanoff, “[s]adly, it is no ‘perception’ that the government systematically harasses its critics by raiding the offices of think tanks, NGOs and media organizations, restricting freedom of and , and pressing — most conspicuously against the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, who was after his conviction on a of having defamed everybody named ‘Modi’. It is no ‘perception’ that history has been torn from national textbooks, cities with Islamic eponyms and India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, stripped of its autonomy.”
The White House, State Department and Pentagon, with the complicity of mainstream media, keep this hidden from the public.
“Western commentators enthusing about the ‘new India’ tend to breeze past such outrages as distractions from India’s economic growth and investment potential. But here too are troubling indicators,” Jasanoff adds.
“The share of women in the formal work force stands at around a paltry 20 percent and during Mr. Modi’s tenure. The share of wealth held by the top 1 percent has grown since he took office and is now 40.5 percent, thanks to crony capitalism resembling the . Unemployment is rising, the cost of basic food is surging, and government investment in health care is stagnating. As for India’s readiness to partner on efforts to combat climate change — one of the Biden administration’s highest hopes — the Indian government has climate activists and just removed from the curriculum for under-16-year-olds in its ongoing assault on science.”
Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom
The Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom represents the real face of Modi. Yet, his government continues to downplay its significance.
Modi’s role in the violent riots that were clearly organized by supporters of the state’s ruling party and followers of the RSS led to more than 1000 Muslim deaths. Women were raped, more than 150,000 people were displaced, and homes and mosques destroyed.
The mob terror has been investigated and debated endlessly. The death of Hindu pilgrims on transport (which Modi blamed on Muslim terrorists at the time, inciting the riots) was eventually ruled as an accident.
A British government investigation said that Modi was “directly responsible” for a “climate of impunity” in which the violence took place.
His state party was thrown out of office in the 2004 elections. However, the new government never held him accountable.
He was re-elected several times afterwards and developed a reputation as a business-friendly reformer with no patience for the red tape or corruption that had rotted the Indian bureaucratic state.
Today, Modi is the twice-elected prime minister of the world’s most populous country, and has vast public support from the 80% Hindu population.
Under Modi’s government, violence against Muslims often goes on unpunished. His government has enacted laws and policies that target Muslims, including changes to Indian citizenship rules.
Modi revoked the special status of Kashmir in 2019 — a Muslim-majority region contested by India and Pakistan — urging more Hindus to move there.
Modi has attacked the rights of other non-Hindus and has systematically cracked down on free speech and dissent. It uses emergency powers to keep information from the Indian people and murky anti-terror laws to hold dissidents in custody.
Biden, Republicans and big business know these facts. But they ignore them.
Understandably, Modi’s state visit infuriated human rights advocates. The joint press conference took place outside the White House and the chants of protesters led by Indians of Muslim faith and many others could be heard.
The two most prominent Muslim members of Congress — Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar — refused to attend Modi's speech to Congress and his state dinner.
Missouri’s Cori Bush, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman also boycotted Modi’s speech to Congress.
Jasanoff argues in her NYT piece that the US “should hold India up as a mirror” and that while it is “common to look to the history of European fascism for parallels with democratic breakdown” in the US “in recent years”, India “offers a troubling guide to how authoritarianism can sabotage a multiethnic democracy in the internet age”.
“Similarities abound: an out-of-touch elite, widening economic inequality, easily mobilized ethnic grievances, a changed information landscape.” Jasanoff also pointedly mentions Modi’s attacks on an independent judiciary, and concludes: “[A]s the president of one stumbling democracy joins hands with a prime minister bent on hobbling another, the project of global freedom seems one step closer to collapse.”