Following Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, DC last week, the Indian government has downplayed all of the criticism the Indian leader faced on the issues of human rights and religious intolerance. With US-India relations growing, many US leaders took the opportunity of Modi’s visit to discuss human rights, including religious intolerance with the prime minister. Instead of taking this issue head on, Modi and his administration have decided to deflect and downplay these discussions. At one point, Modi outright denied that the issue of human rights was discussed during a meeting with President Obama, contradicting a statement made by an Obama spokesperson. Does this mean that religious intolerance and human rights will remain an ignored issue in India?
6/16/2016 India (The Wire) – This past week, Indian and American news agencies covered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington D.C. and the conversations he had with members of the US government and civil society. While Indian newspapers and television stations counted the number of standing ovations Modi received from the US Congress and published pictures of him signing autographs, they by and large failed to report the entire story.
Congressmen and women, civil society in the US and President Barack Obama all called on India to respect universal human rights, with many members of the Congress even advocating for the establishment of a formal dialogue on the subject. This part of the conversation – a call for improvement in democratic governance – cast a shadow over Modi’s entire visit and played a major role in the exchange. Nevertheless, it went largely unreported in the Indian press.
Modi visited Washington from June 6-8, as the fourth leg of his five-nation tour. He met with Obama at the White House on the second day of his visit, marking the leaders’ third major bilateral summit.
The official joint statement released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary summarized the conversation between the leaders, with subsections detailing discussions on global leadership in climate change and clean energy, global non-proliferation, standing together against terrorism, bolstering economic ties, expanding technological cooperation, global leadership within the UN and building people to people ties. Specifically, the two world leaders “pledged to pursue new opportunities to bolster economic growth and sustainable development, promote peace and security at home and around the world, strengthen inclusive, democratic governance and respect for universal human rights, and provide global leadership on issues of shared interest” (emphasis added).
Responding to a question on whether human rights issues and religious intolerance came up during Modi’s talks with Obama, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said, “No, I do not believe the subject came up today in the discussions.”
However, a US official who briefed the press stated that these issues did come up when Modi and Obama discussed the rise of extremism and a deepening partnership rooted in shared democratic values. “While enhancing security measures, democratic freedoms must be protected. Issues related to the role of civil society organizations (and) violence against minority communities were discussed in the context of the rise of extremism, and how this can be tackled in a democratic society,” the official said.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing entitled ‘Challenges and Opportunities: The Advancement of Human Rights in India’ on June 7, just hours after Modi met with Obama.
The hearing examined “the current state of human rights in India, challenges to fundamental freedoms, and opportunities for advancement.” The commission highlighted ongoing discrimination against Dalit communities, human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour, religious intolerance (specifically directed towards Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs ‘at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups’), the curtailing of foreign aid to non-governmental organisations supporting human rights and concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of association. Overall, the hearing sought to provide concrete recommendations on the most effective ways to advance and protect human rights in India, while keeping in the mind the current growth of Indo-US relations in other arenas.
Panel I consisted of members of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Panel II consisted of members of International Christian Concern, the Indian American Muslim Council, the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre and the Dalit American Federation. Activists on the two panels held the Modi government responsible for the current status of human rights in India.
Furthermore, congressman Trent Franks flagged the riots in Uttar Pradesh, violence in Odisha and the 2002 Gujarat riots, stating that because of the “current climate of impunity in India, many victims may never get justice”. Congressman Joseph R. Pitts stated that the economic growth in India “overlooks an array of troubling human rights concerns”.
The Indian government did not seem to flinch and instead downplayed the hearing, attempting to skirt past negative publicity and any dialogue on the issues. Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar stated that on the one hand Modi has been invited by Congress to speak, while on the other “some people are having some hearing”.