Biden faces criticism over red carpet treatment of Modi

President Joe Biden’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew sharp criticism as he was accused of failing to address India’s ongoing restrictions on religious and press freedoms.

During their joint press conference at the White House, the US president and Indian leader were questioned about human rights and democratic issues in India. “The prime minister and I had a good discussion about democratic values – that’s the nature of our relationship, we’re straightforward with each other,” said Biden.  

He added that both countries “cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights which face challenges around the world and in each of our countries.”

But politicians and human rights groups blasted the visit and questioned the Democratic president’s decision to offer the high honour to Modi.  

Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Jamaal Bowman boycotted the joint address and urged others “to join us in boycotting this embarrassing spectacle.”

“When it comes to standing up for human rights, actions speak louder than words. By bestowing Prime Minister Modi with the rare honor of a joint address, Congress undermines its ability to be a credible advocate for the rights of religious minorities and journalists around the world,” they said in a statement.

“Modi has a notorious and extensive record of human rights abuses. He was complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed over 1,000 people, leading to the revocation of his US visa.  

“His government has openly targeted Muslims and other religious minorities, enabled Hindu nationalist violence, undermined democracy, targeted journalists and dissidents, and suppressed criticism using authoritarian tactics like Internet shutdowns and censorship.”

Biden’s choice to extend an official state visit to India reflects his administration’s aim to foster a strategic partnership in countering China.

Critics of the Modi government and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) point to curtailed press freedom, limitations on minority religious rights, and various forms of discrimination as evidence of a concerning human rights record and a regression in democratic rights in the country.  

Protests against Modi visit

People protested outside the White House against Modi’s meeting with Biden, urging the US president to take a strong stance against India’s crackdown on civil society.  

“President Biden, we the people are calling on you to remember how strongly you stood up to Donald Trump and American fascism when you ran for President,” said Husnaa Vhora, from the Indian American Muslim Council, at the protest.  

“Remember how you declared your administration was centred on human rights and democratic values? Remember your promises and stick by them by holding Modi accountable for all of his crimes, both past and present. Cause if you don’t, you’ll be complicit in the downfall of the world’s largest democracy.”

On Tuesday, lawmakers sent a letter to Biden, urging him to discuss human rights concerns with Modi during their private meeting.  

The letter highlighted areas of concern, including credible reports of “shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organisations and journalists and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access” in India.

During a press briefing on Wednesday, activists and academics called for hearings in the US Congress to address human rights issues in India.

“We can’t ignore the facts on the ground … We can’t look away, and neither can the US government,” said Nadine Maenza, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and president of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Secretariat.

“The scale of rights abuse in India has now reached a volume that the issue needs to be raised publicly (by Biden),” said Angana Chatterji, a University of California, Berkeley scholar.

Earlier in the week, Human Rights Watch organised a screening of the BBC documentary that highlighted Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims.

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