In Letter, 75 US Lawmakers Urge Biden To Raise Human Rights With Modi

In a separate development, the bipartisan Congressional panel USCIRF said 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".

New Delhi: Seventy-five Democratic lawmakers have urged US President Joe Biden to raise “areas of concern” on democratic backsliding with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his state visit.

Modi arrived in New York on Tuesday for the start of his three-day state visit to the United States that will culminate in Washington. He has been to the US five times in the past nine years, but this is the first trip to be accorded the full diplomatic protocol of a state visit.

“As longtime supporters of a strong US-India relationship, we also believe that friends can and should discuss their differences in an honest and forthright way. That is why we respectfully request that — in addition to the many areas of shared interests between India and the US — you also raise directly with Prime Minister Modi areas of concern,” said the letter, which was led by Senator Chris Van Hollen and Representative Pramila Jayapal.

A day earlier, Modi had posted on his Twitter account that he appreciated that “people from all walks of life including Members of Congress, thought leaders and others have been sharing their enthusiasm on my upcoming USA visit”. He linked to the Twitter account of the Indian embassy in the US that had posted videos of around five Congressmen and other members of state assemblies welcoming Modi to the US.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Indian PM was asked a question on the concerns about the draconian use of law to clamp down on political opponents, minorities and civil society members. The newspaper reported that Modi refused to comment.

The letter, sent to the White House on Tuesday, was signed by 75 Democratic members of Congress, including 18 senators and 57 members of the House of Representatives. The signatories include Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom were candidates for the Democratic party’s presidential primary election.

It noted that US President Biden had made “made respect for human rights, press freedom, religious freedom, and pluralism core tenets of American foreign policy”. 

“In order to advance these values with credibility on the world stage, we must apply them equally to friend and foe alike, just as we work to apply these same principles here in the United States,” said the letter.

It said that there have been “independent, credible reports” that reflect “troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access”.

It cited the State Department’s annual reports on human rights and religious freedom, as well as international lists that monitor freedom of the press and internet shutdowns.

“We do not endorse any particular Indian leader or political party — that is the decision of the people of India — but we do stand in support of the important principles that should be a core part of American foreign policy. And we ask that, during your meeting with Prime Minister Modi, you discuss the full range of issues important to a successful, strong, and long-term relationship between our two great countries,” said the letter.

Meanwhile, Rashida Talib, a Democrat Congresswoman, tweeted that she will boycott the Indian PM’s joint address to Congress on Thursday. “It’s shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation’s capital—his long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims & religious minorities, and censoring journalists is unacceptable,” she posted.

Another Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, also said she would not attend Modi’s speech. “Prime Minister Modi’s government has repressed religious minorities, emboldened violent Hindu nationalist groups, and targeted journalists/human rights advocates with impunity,” she tweeted, adding that she will hold a briefing with human rights groups to discuss the India prime minister’s “record of repression and violence”.

During the visit, several rights groups have planned protests, even as Modi supporters are also lining up to greet him during his travels.

The bipartisan Congressional panel United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also urged Biden to raise issues related to human rights during Modi’s visit.

“With India’s upcoming state visit, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to explicitly incorporate religious freedom concerns into the two countries’ bilateral relationship. 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,” said USCIRF commissioner David Curry, in a press release.

In the run-up to the visit, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had told reporters last month that the US president believes, “This is an important relationship that we need to continue and build on as it relates to human rights.”