Biden’s State Dinner Guest Has Blood on His Hands
by Nick Gier
There will be a deafening silence when it comes to the human rights crisis in India. —Sen. Bernie Sanders, Narendra Modi’s 2019 visit
On February 27, 2002, a train loaded with religious pilgrims arrived in the Indian state of Gujarat. Soon after the train’s arrival, a fire broke out in one of the coaches, and most of the 94 people burned alive were these Hindu militants.
Hindu nationalists claimed that Muslims set the fire, but every single objective investigation concluded that it was an accident caused by an unattended stove. Nevertheless, anti-Muslim attacks spread throughout Gujarat and the final toll was over 2,000 killed.
Prime Minister Modi and Religious Violence
Narendra Modi, then Gujarat’s state minister and now India’s prime minister did nothing to stop the pogrom against Muslims. About 250 mosques were destroyed (statues of Hindu deities were placed in many of the ruins) along with hundreds of Muslim homes.
Trying to deflect charges that he was responsible for violence against Muslims, Christians, and Dalits (formerly “untouchables”), Modi responded that he was just a passenger in the backseat of a car that ran over a puppy. Modi was too obtuse to realize that the car is an analogue of state agencies for which he is directly responsible.
The Indian Commission on Human Rights found that there was “premeditation in the killing of non-Hindus and complicity by Gujarati State government officials.” Historian K. N. Panikkar concurs: “What happened in Gujarat was an organized massacre of Muslims with the state’s active complicity and connivance.”
Hindu Nationalists and Nazism
A report of the Indian Human Rights Commission condemned the Modi administration for “promoting the attitudes of racial superiority, racial hatred, and the legacy of Nazism.” The swastika comes from ancient India, and many Hindu nationalists use the symbol and claim to be more Aryan than any European. Modi has refused to change his state’s school curriculum, which praises the achievements of Nazi Germany and describes Hitler as a “charismatic” personality.
Modi Banned from American Travel
In 2004 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom investigated the Gujarat violence, and it concluded that Modi was guilty of failing to stop the attacks. (For the last four years this same body reaffirmed its deep concern for violations of religious freedom, including the deaths of Muslims.) Because of this report the U.S. State Department decided, in 2005, to ban Modi from traveling to the country.
The travel ban was lifted in 2014, when Modi was elected prime minister by a huge margin, and his Hindu nationalist party continues to rack up victories throughout the nation. Suppression of human rights, especially of the Muslim minority of 200 million, is a daily occurrence. Rahul Gandhi, Indira’s Gandhi’s grandson and current Congress Party leader, has been kicked out of Parliament for criticizing Modi at a political rally.
U.S. Support for Modi
In a classic exercise of Realpolitik—the U.S. does it all the time with Saudi Arabia and other autocratic nations—Obama, Trump, and now Biden are willing to let geopolitical concerns eclipse human rights violations.
President Biden has declared “the battle between democracy and autocracy as the defining struggle of our times,” but he still arranged a state dinner for Modi. Modi also addressed a joint session of Congress, a rare honor, especially because he has been invited to do so twice.
Trump was especially cozy with Modi given his admiration for autocrats. (He also shares Modi’s nasty antipathy to Muslims.) During a huge rally for Modi at a Houston stadium in 2019, the two were holding hands—an innocent homosocial gesture typical of Indian males.
Several thousand gathered outside the stadium to protest human rights violations by Modi’s government, particularly the removal of home rule for the Muslim majority Kashmir. This allowed the Indian army to arbitrarily arrest people who protested this executive action.
India’s Importance in South Asia
The main aim of the Biden administration’s policy in South Asia is to thwart China’s growing influence there, and the U.S. wants India’s aid in this effort. India suffered a humiliating defeat on its 2,200-mile border with China in 1962, and there are still serious skirmishes there.
For decades the U.S. has favored, unwisely, Pakistan over India. The result was that India turned to Russia for military aid and oil, and the U.S., since the Obama-Biden administration, has attempted to decrease that dependent relationship. Another issue here is that Modi has refused to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, primarily because of the cheap oil he is receiving from Russia.
Praise and Criticism of Modi
Towards these ends Biden administration officials have heaped praise on Modi. Eric Garcetti, the new U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, proclaimed that India was in “wonderful hands.” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo called Modi an “unbelievable and visionary figure — and the most popular leader in the world.”
Over 70 members of Congress released a statement, part of which read: “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.”
Six progressive House members took the extra step of boycotting Modi’s speech. In their own statement they warn that “Congress undermines its ability to be a credible advocate for the rights of religious minorities and journalists around the world.”
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy for 31 years at the University of Idaho. Parts of this column were drawn from chapter 2 of his book The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective. He enjoyed two sabbaticals and one research leave in India for a total of 22 months in that country. Email him at ngier006∂gmail.com.–