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07/19/2023 India (International Christian Concern) – Presidency of the G20 rotates every year, giving member countries a revolving opportunity to highlight major national achievements, share their culture, and steer the global coalition’s annual agenda. It is a coveted role, and one that is especially valuable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he prepares for general elections just nine months away. 

Visible abroad with a tour that included the United States and Egypt last month, Modi has leveraged the G20 meetings—held throughout the year and culminating in the grand G20 Summit in September—domestically as well, plastering his image on G20-themed billboards across the country. Modi has gained significant domestic popularity as a champion of Indian power and influence, even as his international image has suffered due to democratic backsliding and an ever-worsening human rights situation in the country.  

India also hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security summit earlier this month. Attendees of the summit included Russian President Valdimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The timing, just weeks after a state visit by Modi to Washington last month, is illustrative of the multipolar world order envisioned by Modi’s India in which it chooses partners based on limited self-interest rather than the traditional geopolitical fault lines dividing western states from countries like Russia and China. 

The U.S. sees India as a critical counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia and has courted the country for many years despite India’s backsliding democracy and its worsening human rights record, including the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. The Summit, which includes not only India and Russia, but Pakistan and four Central Asian countries as well, is a prime forum for Chinese influence across the region and a cause of concern for U.S. officials trying to counter Chinese authoritarianism. 

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. 

The U.S. Department of State recently reported earlier this year that “attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states [across India] throughout the year.” Further, the report discussed the issue of state-level laws which criminalize minority religious activity and highlighted “numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states.” 

In May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also raised concerns about persecution in India, saying that religious freedom conditions “continued to worsen” in the last year and recommending that the U.S. designate India as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” 

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. 

Modi himself was previously banned from entering the U.S. for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots which left over 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. 

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