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06/22/2023 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington, D.C. ahead of his first official state visit to the United States. He will address a joint session of Congress on Thursday before being feted at a White House state dinner—a rare honor for visiting heads of state and only the third such event in President Biden’s two years in office. Modi’s visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity between the two countries as the Biden administration seeks to build an international coalition to combat Chinese influence around the world.

The visit comes as tensions between the U.S. and China reach new highs. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just finished a long-delayed visit to Beijing, but he was unsuccessful in his efforts to reopen military-to-military communication channels and tensions over Taiwan continue to flare. Comments made by President Biden just hours after the Blinken visit calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” prompted anger from the Chinese Foreign Ministry which termed Biden’s comments “extremely absurd.”

The Biden administration may need India now more than ever, but America has been courting India for decades. The Trump administration also worked to deepen ties with Modi’s government, including through high-profile visits to New Delhi and a large rally for Modi in Houston in 2019. Indeed, the U.S. has sought to deepen trade and defense ties with India since the George W. Bush administration on the theory that, given its size and proximity to China, India is indispensable in the so-called great powers conflict between the U.S. and rivals China and Russia.

Some experts believe that Washington’s hopeful dependence on India as an ally in its conflict against China is misplaced, pointing to India’s support for Russia during the ongoing war against Ukraine. In the year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Modi has overseen an elevenfold increase in imports of Russian oil, defying U.S. demands and extending a vital economic lifeline to the Russian war effort. The move has placed a strain on U.S.-India relations and will doubtless be raised during Modi’s visit.

“New Delhi will never involve itself in any U.S. confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security,” Ashley Tellis, a leading expert on U.S.-India relations, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis.”

Even aside from whether India’s human rights record should be ignored, then, the U.S. effort to court India is far from guaranteed to produce a reliable ally.

The New York Times called Modi’s visit a “temporary truce” in Biden’s battle for democracy and human rights, citing the way Modi’s administration has “cracked down on dissent and hounded opponents in a way that has raised fears of an authoritarian turn not seen since India’s slip into dictatorship in the 1970s.” Such concerns are echoed by many in civil society and the media, which has received significant pressure from the Modi administration including recently when the government banned the showing of a BBC documentary critical of Modi’s human rights record.

Though much is made in diplomatic circles of the fact that India and America are the world’s two largest democracies, Modi has overseen significant democratic backsliding and a serious deterioration of human rights in India.

Indeed, Modi was previously banned from entering the U.S. for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots which left more than 2,000 Muslims dead. The Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, Modi’s public comments and failure to stop the riots led to massive religious violence against Gujarati Muslims. In 2005, the U.S. Department of State determined that his actions amounted to a severe violation of religious freedom, triggering the only known use of the International Religious Freedom Act to sanction a foreign official.

In his time as Prime Minister, Modi has overseen a sharp increase in religious violence across the country. In 2014, the year Modi took office, there were 144 recorded incidents of religious violence according to civil society leaders in India. In 2022, there were over 600 incidents and 2023 is trending similarly. Many states have also enacted anti-conversion laws since 2014, statutes that criminalize most minority religious activity and embolden mobs to attack peaceful Christian and Muslim gatherings.

Though a recent U.S. Department of State report points out several concerns with the state of religious freedom in India, more recent comments suggest that the U.S. is unwilling to push the matter. In a press briefing Wednesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan assured the media that the U.S. will not “lecture” India on its failings “or assert that we don’t have challenges ourselves,” according to a Reuters report. His comments suggest that the U.S. will take a tentative approach on the issues of democracy and rights in India, much to the disappointment of rights advocates who have been raising the issues for years.

The Department of State can designate countries as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) or include them on its Special Watch List (SWL). Such designations carry with them the threat of various sanctions, though these are typically waived.

In 2010, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that India be added to the SWL, intensifying its call in 2020 when it downgraded India to a CPC recommendation. USCIRF has continued to call for a CPC designation in the three years since, pointing to the promotion and enforcement of religiously discriminatory policies at all levels of the Indian government “including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs, and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis.”

Though India could be designated as a CPC or SWL country when the Department of State announces its designations later this year, it has never been included on either list despite consistent calls from human rights watchdog organizations and USCIRF.

After his visit in Washington, Modi is scheduled to fly to Egypt, another tenuous U.S. security partner and a significant violator of religious freedom.

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