US Media's Critical Coverage of Modi Visit Places Human Rights Front and Centre

While 'The Atlantic' minced no words in acknowledging the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi's handling of the situation, 'The New Yorker' noted this meeting was a reminder of trade-offs in Biden's foreign policy.

New Delhi: India’s bleak human rights situation took centre stage in US media’s coverage of US President Joe Biden’s reception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The prime minister of the world’s largest democracy – who has never given a press conference in his own country – was compelled to answer a question by the media in the US.

When asked by the Wall Street Journal on the alleged persecution of Muslims, human rights violations and democracy in India, Modi said, “Mujhe ashcharya ho raha hain ki log kehte hain…log kehte hain nahi, Bharat democracy hain…aur Bharat aur America, dono ke DNA mein loktantra hain.” This translates to “I am surprised that people say…it’s not that people say, India is a democracy…and both India and America have democracy in their DNA.”

On human rights and free speech, Modi said, “Bharat ke loktantrik mulyo mein koi bhed bhav nahi hain, na dharm ke aadhar par, na jaati ke aadhar par, na umar ke aadhar par…” This translates to “there is no discrimination in India’s democratic values, neither on the basis of religion, nor on the basis of caste, nor on the basis of age…”

But how has the Western media perceived Biden’s acceptance of Modi, amid widespread criticism of India’s human rights situation?

The New York Times: ‘Mark the day: Modi fielded live questions from the press’

NYT highlighted how Modi has always denied any wrongdoing, as is clearly evident from his answers on India’s human rights situation and democracy, as mentioned earlier. It also pointed out how the prime minister and his administration has been controlling the media since he took power.

“From the start of his time in office, Mr. Modi and his staff have been fastidious about controlling his message, and trying to control the media, in general. Though he loves speeches at public events, and has leaned into his monthly radio show as a way to deliver messages to the nation, any exposure to unscripted events had been a rarity before the White House event, and probably will be again afterward,” said NYT.

It also noted that Gujarat “broke into widespread riots in 2002,” and Modi “was accused of looking away – or even enabling – Hindu mobs who went on deadly rampages in Muslim neighbourhoods.”

“Mr. Modi had long rejected any wrongdoing. But he has also publicly said that his biggest failure during that time was that he could not control the media – something he has assiduously pursued since then,” it added.

Also read: ‘Concerns About Indian Democracy Must Also Enter Into Diplomatic Conversations’: Barack Obama

The New Yorker: ‘What Joe Biden Didn’t Say to Narendra Modi’

The article noted that this meeting was a reminder of trade-offs in Biden’s foreign policy.

It said: “Modi’s visit has, predictably, called attention to his autocratic leanings at home and served as a reminder of the trade-offs inherent in Biden’s foreign policy. The former US diplomat Aaron David Miller called Biden’s embrace of Modi and the human-rights-abusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Biden visited last year despite having vowed as a candidate to shun and isolate him, ‘a head-exploding hypocritical pivot.'”

It further observed that “it’s far from clear whether the accommodations to Modi were worth it.” This comment was written in reference to Modi’s silence on the Russia-Ukraine war, and the fact that he “did not even acknowledge that it was Russia that started the war.”

While criticising the Indian prime minister, The New Yorker didn’t fail to point out the “perilous state of America’s own democracy.”

It defined the press conference with Modi as a “brief press-conference-that-wasn’t-a-press conference”.

Los Angeles Times: ‘Why Is Biden Silent on Modi and India’s Slide Toward Autocracy?’

“India’s democracy is in danger. There is no sound moral, political or economic case for President Biden and other democratic leaders to pretend this isn’t happening,” said Los Angeles Times, on June 20, ahead of the joint press conference of Modi and Biden.

The opinion piece further noted, “An autocratic India will be no fast friend in the struggle against autocracies. A sustainable alliance requires genuinely shared values.”

It pointed out that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is the “latest target of regime lawfare.” The opposition leader was disqualified from parliament after a two-year defamation sentence which a Gujarat court refused to stay.

He’s convicted in a case related to a speech he had given in Kolar in 2019 in which he said, “I have a question. Why do all these thieves have Modi in their names whether it is Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi? We don’t know how many more such Modis will come out.”

The article also talked about the misuse of central law enforcement agencies to crack down on politicians. Basically, as per several reports, these agencies are allegedly used to crack down on activists, journalists, and anybody who raises a voice against the ruling administration.

“The infamous Enforcement Directorate has increased investigations of political leaders by 400% since Modi came to power, with 95% of those targeted hailing from the opposition. And all this has been in service of a Hindu nationalist regime that can be menacing to minorities. Hate crimes against Muslims are up 300% since Modi came to power and new legislation threatens to disenfranchise a large percentage of the country’s 200 million Muslims,” it said.

It also noted the importance of western countries in establishing a relationship with India so that they can “decouple” their economies from China and shift industry to India.

And therefore, it spoke of hope, saying, “There is every reason to think that India could once again be a democracy that inspires the world. Its constitution remains strong, and its Supreme Court shows signs of willingness to stand up to the regime. It is governed by a highly federalized system with powerful state administrations, half of whom are not in the hands of Modi’s BJP.”

But it concluded saying, “Biden says democracy is “the single best way to realise the promise of our future. He and many other influential supporters of democracy know that India’s democracy is in danger — it’s time for them to say so loud and clear.”

Also read: Biden by His Side, Modi Cites ‘Constitution’ to Parry Question on Minority Rights, Suppression of Dissent

Foreign Affairs: ‘The Folly of India’s Neutrality’

“In the face of Chinese aggression, New Delhi must align with Washington,” read the summary of the piece in Foreign Affairs.

In another piece by Daniel Markey, before Modi landed in the US, said that “the Biden administration, having cast itself as a vocal champion of democratic ideals, finds itself on shaky ground whenever it characterises the US’s partnership with India as one of shared values.”

“If making democratic values the cornerstone of the US-Indian relationship has always been a dubious strategy, today it is clearly doomed– because the very notion of common values has itself come to look fanciful. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Indian prime minister nine years ago, India’s status as a democracy has become increasingly suspect. The “world’s largest democracy” has seen an upsurge in violence directed at its Muslim minority, often whipped up by prominent politicians. It is trying to strip citizenship from millions of Muslim residents. It is muzzling the press and silencing opposition figures,” it said.

It noted that India and the US have a “clear, common geopolitical foe in China.” And, each understands that the other can help it win its competition against Beijing.

“For India, the United States is an attractive source of advanced technology, education, and investment. New Delhi may still have close ties with Moscow, but the uncertain quality and reliability of Russian arms mean that India is more open than ever to buying weapons from the West instead,” it added.

But what justifies US’s high tolerance for New Delhi’s behaviour [on human rights, declining democracy and press freedom]?

“Rather than considering India an ally in the fight for global democracy, it must see that India is an ally of convenience,” noted the article.

“This shift will not be easy, given that Washington has spent decades looking at New Delhi through rose-colored glasses. But the pivot will encourage both sides to understand that their relationship is ultimately transactional – and allow them to get down to business,” it said.

The Atlantic: ‘Indian Dissidents Have Had It With America Praising Modi’

The Atlantic’s Daniel Block minced no words in acknowledging the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi’s handling of the situation when he was the chief minister of the state.

It criticised American leaders who “continue to praise New Delhi and downplay its shortcomings.”

It quoted Hartosh Singh Bal, the executive editor of The Caravan, one of the country’s few remaining independent national news outlets, as saying, “Unless they are blind, they can tell that there’s a huge difference in what a thriving democracy should be and what India is.”

The article noted the significance of international criticism. For instance, it said that “during the 2020 presidential election, both Biden and Kamala Harris criticised Indian policies toward Kashmir. Trump said that Modi was “working very hard on religious freedom.” New Delhi ended the internet shutdown 16 days after the former two politicians took office.”

On this matter, The Atlantic quoted Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India, as saying, “My speculation is that what was blocked for 17 months was lifted in less than 17 days because of what was felt to be a pressure coming in from the Democrats.”

Another journalist told the author that the US should set a positive example by “taking on Hindu nationalists in the US.”

Sudipto Mondal, the executive editor of The News Minute, said, “More than 5 million South Asians live in the US, including people who belong to low castes. They can experience oppression that mirrors what low-caste people are subjected to in India. Large numbers of South Asian Americans belonging to Hinduism’s lowest caste, for example, have reported facing caste-based employment discrimination from high-caste South Asian Americans (who constitute most of the diaspora). So far, no US state has added caste to the list of groups protected by anti-discrimination laws, but Seattle banned caste discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces in February. California is moving forward with legislation that would do the same.”

“If Congress followed suit, Mondal believes the effects could reverberate around the world,” noted the article.

Politico: ‘Biden Is Happy to Throw Modi an Esteemed Dinner. And Bite His Lip About Human Rights.’

“Despite its wariness of Modi, the US has looked to New Delhi as a rising economic partner and a bulwark against China’s dominance in the region,” said Politico.

With India becoming the world’s most populous nation and its surging economy drawing foreign investments, the article observed that “the US feels it has no choice but continue to court him [Modi] as an essential bulwark on the far side of the globe.”

It highlighted the significance of India-US ties with respect to keep a check on China.

“India’s biggest role, the administration believes, could be to provide a check on China. India and China share a lengthy border and recent tensions. US has elevated India as part of the Quad alliance — along with Australia and Japan — to reinforce democracy’s position in the Pacific and has pushed New Delhi to act as a buffer against the economic and territorial ambitions of Xi Jinping,” it said.

However, it criticised the stance taken by US officials, who, despite knowing the deteriorating human rights situation in India, “prefer to level their criticisms behind the scenes.”

“But doing so, human rights activists argue, means offering a tacit blessing to the abuses taking place under Modi’s watch — and it forfeits an opportunity to improve the situation,” it added.