Washington, DC – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked off a controversial visit to the United States by hosting a United Nations yoga event.
Critics were quick to condemn the display, held on the front lawn of the United Nations in New York City on Wednesday. They said it distracted from allegations Modi’s administration has leaned into a Hindu nationalism that has targeted minorities, eroded democracy and shrugged off human rights.
That criticism has also been aimed at the administration of US President Joe Biden, who is set to host Modi for an official state dinner on Thursday night, one of the highest honours bestowed to visiting officials.
The two leaders are also set to hold a joint news conference that day, and Modi will address a joint session of the US Congress.
Criticism of ‘om-washing’
“Yoga means to unite. So your coming together is an expression of another form of yoga,” Modi told participants at the United Nations event on Wednesday morning, hours before he was set to be greeted by Biden at the White House.
But Ria Chakrabarty, the policy director at Hindus for Human Rights, accused the prime minister of using the event as “om-washing”, a variation on “whitewashing” that employs the mantra “om”.
She explains that cultural Hinduism — through activities like yoga, meditation and mindfulness — have a great deal of “soft power” in the West, with thousands of fans and adherents.
“Essentially what he’s doing is taking advantage of that soft power,” Chakrabarty said.
“It’s really just creating cultural soft power for him to go back to India and say, ‘Look … I’m this person who has put Hinduism on the world stage,’ even though what he’s really done is put Hindu nationalism on the world stage.”
Chakrabarty spoke on Wednesday as part of a coalition of academics, former US government officials, Indian minority groups and journalists opposing Modi’s visit. They called on the Biden administration to prioritise a laundry list of human rights allegations in his upcoming meetings with Modi.
Rights groups have documented rising abuses under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014. They include restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests of critics, an increase in communal violence, caste- and religion-based hate crimes, and the targeting of indigenous communities.
Angana Chatterji, a co-chair of the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative at the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley, said the US “should not bargain away human rights and democracy for political expedience”.
“Eighteen years ago, a coalition akin to the one convening today’s press conference called for the revocation of Narendra Modi’s visa,” she said.
“At that time, the United States denied Mr Modi a visa,” she said, referring to a 2005 decision to bar Modi from entering the US for failing to stop anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the leader of the state. That restriction ended when Modi became prime minister.
A ‘defining’ relationship to curb China
But much has changed since Modi was denied the US visa, with foreign policy analysts saying both Washington and the Indian government have felt increasing unease over China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Concerns about curbing China’s power, critics say, have largely trumped the Biden administration’s vow to pursue a foreign policy led by human rights.
Speaking to a small group of reporters on Tuesday, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called Modi’s visit “a hinge moment” in US-India relations, according to the Washington Post.
Sullivan predicted US-India ties “will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century”.
When pressed on the issue of human rights, Sullivan said Biden has consistently stressed the need to “rally the values, norms and forces of democracy”. But, he added, Biden “has also been clear that, in that larger effort, we need constructive relationships with countries of all different traditions and backgrounds”.
Still, Zaki Barzinji, who served as a White House liaison to Muslim Americans under former President Barack Obama, said that the US-India relationship needs a different type of “turning point”.
“What our president says and does over these next few days while Prime Minister Modi is on American soil — what our elected members of Congress say and do — will directly impact the lives of millions and millions of families in Kashmir and across India for a generation,” said Barzinji, who is also the co-founder of Americans for Kashmir.
In 2019, India stripped Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region, of its limited autonomy. Since then, civil liberty groups have accused India of rolling back the rights to free media, expression and peaceful assembly and severely restricting internet access in the region.
Modi’s visit could be a crossroads, Barzinji explained, for the US government to address the crisis.
“I know the White House and Congress can give a big shining green light to Prime Minister Modi’s full-scale assault on democracy,” he said. “Or the White House and Congress can start a new conversation all together with human rights, religious pluralism and freedom at the beginning and centre of any discussion about the future of our relationship with India.”
Officials push to address India’s human rights
Despite bipartisan support for Modi’s visit, some legislators have echoed the concerns raised by human rights observers.
On Tuesday, 70 members of the US Senate and House of Representatives released a letter pushing Biden to broach the “troubling signs in India” that indicate a deteriorating human rights record.
Meanwhile, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent government body, also called on Biden to speak to religious freedom concerns.
“It is vital the US government acknowledge the Indian government’s perpetration and toleration of particularly severe violations of religious freedom against its own population and urge the government to uphold its human rights obligations,” USCIRF commissioner David Curry said in a statement.
In annual reports since 2020, the commission has urged the US state department to designate India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom.
Most recently, it cited “laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits and Adivasis”. It also noted the suppression of “critical voices”, particularly in minority religious communities.
Speaking as part of the coalition on Wednesday, Nadine Maenza, the former chair of USCIRF, again called on Biden to make the designation.
“This is an opportunity for President Biden to show leadership by speaking directly to Prime Minister Modi about the seriousness of the situation,” she said.