On June 22, 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden began an historic welcome address for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the stately East Room in the White House.
The U.S.-India partnership “is among the most consequential in the world… stronger, closer, and more dynamic than any time in history,” Mr. Biden beamed. “Together, we’re unlocking a shared future of what I believe to be unlimited potential.”
Biden would speak for nearly seven minutes on U.S.-India cooperation in spaceflight, clean energy, climate crisis, food security, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, semiconductors, telecom, defense cooperation, American jobs, Air India, Boeing, steel, optic fiber, student visas, Indian consulates, Russia, Ukraine, territorial integrity, the Quad, Indo-Pacific, Israel, the UAE, bank reform, debt relief, cancer, diabetes, health systems, and the need of “people everywhere to have the opportunity to live in dignity.”
At the end, the president intoned: “Indians and Americans are both peoples who… cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights… which remain so vital to the success of each of our nations: press freedom, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity.” India, Mr. Biden grandly asserted, was indeed “a democracy.”
Asked by a reporter about India’s democracy Mr. Biden claimed “diversity” and “open, tolerant, robust debate” were “common” to the U.S. and India. “It makes us appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions.” Responding to the reporter, Mr. Modi said in Hindi: “We have always proved that democracy can deliver… regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.” Mr. Modi further added: “In India’s democratic values, there’s absolutely no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or age, or any… geographic location.”
However, even as Mr. Biden was extolling India’s religious freedom, Monu Manesar, a Hindu extremist from BJP-ruled Haryana state, was sharing a video on Instagram of himself with a gun while holding a Muslim hostage. Manesar is accused of murdering two Muslims in February. The police have falsely claimed that he is absconding.
As Mr. Biden was speaking, Muslims in Rajasthan state were cowering in fear for their safety after a Hindu mob including leaders of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set fire to a mosque. As Mr. Biden was speaking, thousands of Muslims were living as internal refugees after fleeing their homes just days earlier in BJP-ruled Uttarakhand state following vicious attacks by thousands of Hindus, many allied with the BJP.
A day after the White House bromance, police in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, arrested a Muslim for praying at an educational institution. A day later, a Hindu mob beat to death a Muslim man in BJP-ruled Maharashtra state, the second lynching of a Muslim in two weeks. While Mr. Modi was still enjoying American hospitality, a leading politician of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority province, accused the military of forcing Muslims in a mosque to chant Hindu religious slogans.
Incredibly, hours before the White House press conference, former President Barack Obama delivered a grim warning on India. “If the [U.S.] president meets with Prime Minister Modi then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India [is] worth mentioning,” he told CNN. “If you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart.”
Equally incredibly, two days before the White House event, as many as 75 members of the U.S. Congress, including 18 U.S. senators, wrote a letter to Mr. Biden asking him to hold Mr. Modi to account for his human rights violations. “A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter – unprecedented because never before have as many U.S. lawmakers come together to bemoan India’s democratic decline – referred to the U.S. State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in India that “documents the tightening of political rights and expression,” and the Department’s 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom in India that “details the worrisome increase of religious intolerance toward minorities and religiously motivated violence by both private and state actors.”
Both reports were released this year by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Quoting Reporters Without Borders, the France-based global watchdog, the lawmakers said “India, a country that has been known in the past for its vibrant and independent press, has fallen significantly in the rankings for press freedom.” The letter also noted that India “ranks first in terms of the most internet shutdowns for the fifth year in a row.”
Five days before the White House event, the Washington Post Editorial Board wrote Mr. Modi and his BJP had caused India to “retreat from democracy [as] under the banner of a majoritarian Hindu nationalism, they have unleashed violence against Muslims and other minorities, eroded press freedoms and suffocated independent civil society.”
Noting anti-Muslim violence by Hindu mobs during Hindu festivals, adoption of laws and policies that “systematically discriminate against Muslims,” and the demolition of Muslim’s properties in response to protests, it wrote: “Increasingly, the authorities act with impunity, and they are rarely held to account. Vigilante attacks go unpunished.”
The newspaper detailed Mr. Modi’s “broad assault on freedom of expression and dissent,” with journalists being arrested and “subjected to online harassment. In reaction to a BBC documentary about Mr. Modi and his relationship with the nation’s Muslims, the government attempted to block people from streaming it and then sent tax agents to raid BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai,” the Washington Post wrote.
Writing that “a weakened democracy, or a shell of one, will portend a weakened India,” the newspaper wrote that the U.S. “cannot remain silent about Mr. Modi’s worrisome democratic backsliding,” and Mr. Biden “should also say something openly” to Mr. Modi about these concerns. It urged that Mr. Modi “be encouraged” to end the “spiral of communal violence and toxic hate” directed at India’s Muslims and other minorities.
License to Kill
Given such wide expression of concern at Mr. Modi’s rampant authoritarianism, it is hard to believe the Biden Administration does not know that Mr. Modi will verily use America’s abject capitulation to him as a license to immediately intensify his unprecedented assault on civil and political liberties, human rights and religious freedoms in India.
And therefore, just five days after his press conference with Mr. Biden, Mr. Modi boldly declared in India that he would bring a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) to deny India’s 250 million Muslims the Constitutional rights that have protected their customs on marriage, inheritance and divorce since the founding of modern India seven decades ago.
To bring the UCC has been a pet peeve of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the 98-year-old Hindu supremacist organization that has long advocated to end India’s secular and pluralist Constitution and convert India into a Hindu Rashtra (nation).
The RSS, of which Mr. Modi has been a member since teenage, campaigns to turn India’s social and religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, into second-class citizens. It wants to implement Manusmriti, a centuries’ old codification of cultural norms that treat women as unequal to men, the lower castes as unequal to upper castes, into India’s common law. The RSS is the motherboard of a range of Hindu extremist outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has designated as militant organizations.
With Mr. Biden now pretending that Mr. Modi is a great democrat, India’s state institutions such as the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, the news media, and the civil society, already in various stages of decline, will hasten towards collapse. Freedom House, a Washington, DC-based organization, has for two years downgraded India’s democracy from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Sweden’s V-Dem Institute has called India an “elected autocracy” saying that democracy “broke down” in India in the last ten years.
With India’s General Election ten months away, and America turning a blind eye to Mr. Modi’s excesses against democracy, the Indian civil society is already fearing a sharp turn for the worse in the near future as Mr. Modi seeks to further stoke the divisiveness to win a third term. Indian Muslims fully expect more vigilante killings, more arbitrary arrests, more torture and prolonged detention, more mass violence at their doorstep.
U.S.-India: A Dark Future
America’s gushing embrace of the authoritarian Mr. Modi is, sadly, not without precedent. Over decades, the U.S. has backed autocrats, despots and totalitarian regimes for narrow self-interest, triggering collapse of state institutions, leading to decades of internal violence, police brutalities, and mass uprisings in those countries.
History has shown that in country after country across the continents the masses that once may have thought favorably of America over time began to loathe it as an archenemy for its backing of brutal dictators. In India’s neighborhood alone Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are countries that have lived through this experience. Today, America is persona non grata in Afghanistan and Iran, and roundly hated in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, general Ayub Khan imposed martial law with the full backing of Washington barely a decade after freedom from colonial rule, unleashing mass repression. In 1971, America supported Pakistan as the latter committed a genocide of the Bengali people in the then East Pakistan. To this day, the people of Bangladesh wholly mistrust the U.S.
In 2000, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright admitted that the U.S. “played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister,” in 1953 and that “it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ is a handy primer on how the U.S. endlessly funded and armed the Afghan Mujahideen, fueling a sharp rise in Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and, inevitably, in Pakistan. The Mujahideen confabulating with President Reagan in the Oval Office is a photo that’s never going to go away. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaK_CZk-0Rg)
It is a no-brainer that America’s myopic embrace of Modi will tremendously empower and stoke Hindu radicalization in India. Already, calls for genocide of Muslims are rampant. With America’s support, the fires of internal strife will rise so high in the country of my birth that conflicts in other Asian countries will fade in comparison.
India is as large in size as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan put together. These three countries hold only 350 million people, a fourth of India’s 1.4 billion. Indeed, India has as many non-Hindu as are the combined populations of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We cannot fathom the prospects of Hindu extremism in India 10 or 20 years from now.
And as happened in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, spiraling sectarian strife in India will increasingly ill serve America’s national security interests. This is already evident in the Chinese appropriation of Indian territory along the border between the two countries. The Americans must know that unceasing sectarian violence since May in the Manipur state that borders Myanmar, which is aligned to China, fully serves Beijing’s interests.
The worst fear is that millions of future Indians will begin to distrust and even hate America. As of now, millions of Indians love America and aspire to visit, migrate, study and work in the U.S. Even in the era when India and the U.S. were politically polarized, and India was close to the former Soviet Union, there was no hatred among the Indian people towards America and American people. The power of American music, cinema, science and technology over India has been enormous for over a century.
Alumni from the premier Indian educational institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, Jawaharlal Nehru University and many others began migrating to America years ago. Today, Corporate America as well as American academia are extensively populated by high-performing Indians. As Mr. Biden noted in his speech, “a vibrant Indian American community of more than 4 million strong contributes every single day to the writing of the future” of the United States.
But with America embracing persecution, oppression and unprecedented violations of human rights and religious freedom in India, the U.S.-India story has only one way forward, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh.
A totalitarian Modi is no friend of America’s. He is a threat to India, America and the world.