- Prachi Patankaractivist and co-founder South Asia Solidarity Initiative.
- Teesta Setalvadcivil rights activist and journalist based in Mumbai, India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in their first face-to-face meeting. The meeting comes as Lockheed Martin announced a deal to begin making F-16 fighter jets in India. Modi is part of a notorious gallery of strongmen that have swept into power across the globe. One of the key issues expected to come up during the meeting is the fate of the H-1B visa program, which permits thousands of Indian computer engineers to enter the United States each year. Trump signed an executive order in April to review the visa program. We speak with Mumbai-based Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist and journalist. We also speak with Prachi Patankar, co-founder of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, based in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump is welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House for their first face-to-face meeting. Modi is head of the Hindu nationalist BJP party and has led India since 2014. Modi was once banned from the United States on charges he did not intervene in a massacre against Muslims in 2002 when he headed the Indian state of Gujarat.
The meeting comes just days after the White House announced a $2 billion deal to sell India 22 Guardian surveillance drones. The deal will help India expand its use of drones in occupied Kashmir as well as along the Pakistani border. In addition, Lockheed Martin has just announced a deal to begin making F-16 fighter jets in India.
Another top agenda item of today’s Trump-Modi meeting is the future of the H-1B visa program, which thousands of Indian computer engineers use each year to come to the United States. In April, President Trump signed an executive order to review the visa program.
Many observers have compared Trump to Modi. In January, Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker magazine, quote, Trump “will join Modi as the latest figure in the world’s swelling ranks of populist-nationalist leaders, a gallery of strongmen in countries rich and poor, some more democratic and some less so, who govern partly through intimidation and a certain curated arbitrariness,” unquote.
To talk more about today’s meeting, we’re joined by two guests. Teesta Setalvad is a civil rights activist and journalist based in Mumbai, India. She’s the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace. And here in New York, Prachi Patankar, co-founder of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Prachi, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of this meeting today between Trump, the president of the United States, and Modi.
PRACHI PATANKAR: Well, I think, just like any of the other predecessors or of these leaders of these countries, the U.S. and India, I imagine they’ll talk about similar long-term issues like economic trade deals and nuclear deals. And I think, like you mentioned, they’ll talk about the arms deal that they’re about to sign. And, of course, given the latest pulling of—from the climate deal that Trump saw, that they will talk that, as well.
But what differentiates these two leaders from the past leaders is that they are—they come together as for their authoritarianism. Modi led the way a few years ago, coming into power led by a very much kind of fascistic and Hindu fundamentalist regime, followed by what he did in Gujarat. And I think that this is what brings them together.
Another thing that also brings them together is their kind of populist and symbolic rhetoric. So, Trump has the “Make America Great Again” symbolic idea that he campaigned on, but Modi also talks about making India. So they’re both kind of these nationalists, keep jobs at home, talk about the economy in that way.
But what is happening within their home countries, as we know, in—Modi announced, actually, on the U.S. Election Day on November—in November, the demonetization, the disastrous demonetization policy, which was—had disastrous consequences for the poor and marginalized people of India, many of them farmers and Dalits, who are the most lowest rung of the caste society in India. And those people are, you know, resisting these policies, as we see in my home state. In Maharashtra, there was a farmer strike, because farmers have the—face the brunt of these policies, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist and—who is based in Mumbai, and journalist. Prachi just mentioned Gujarat, but most people, I think, in the United States, and perhaps around the world, are not familiar with what she’s referring to, and you’re very involved with this issue. Can you talk about Modi’s history?
TEESTA SETALVAD: Yeah, it’s very important to understand Modi’s history, particularly when we look at the meeting of Modi and Trump, because I think two large—the two world’s largest democracies, talking about the democratic will of the people, having come to power in a certain manner, and both representing a certain kind of majoritarianism.
Modi is different from Trump in the sense that I know that Trump’s father had links with the Ku Klux Klan, different in a sense that Modi’s grooming, political grooming, and entire growth has been with an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Now, people just know a little bit about this. There have been a lot of academic studies and a lot of real issues down at the ground when we had communal violence breaking out. The RSS is an outfit that is protofascist, that does not really believe in a constitutional democracy as India is now. So Modi, in a sense, is today a very popular leader, for sure, but he comes from the grooming of the RSS that believe in a supremacist India, that believes in differentials in citizenship.
So, the pogrom of 2002, which Prachi referred to, very rightly, was on Modi’s watch. It was—you know, it was poor governance, at best, and brutal, at worst. You have almost 2,000 Muslims’ lives being killed in reprisal violence after a despicable burning of a coach, which was actually allowed to, in rhetorical terms, to be seen as if Hindu nationalists were being burned and attacked by Muslims in the city of Godhra. But for virtually seven months after that, you had reprisal violence and the state just looking on. Modi was chief minister then. And to date, he has not really apologized or even expressed regret for that massacre.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain how many people—this was in 2002.
TEESTA SETALVAD: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: With Modi at the—as the kind of—well, the equivalent of governor of Gujarat.
TEESTA SETALVAD: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people died? And then, what the U.S. action was that followed, banning him from or refusing to give him a visa to the United States?
TEESTA SETALVAD: You see, this was a very, very successful campaign launched by Indians, expat Indians, based in the United States, who actually campaigned there on the issue of the 2002 massacre being a genocidal carnage, and argued that for a man who was chief minister of the state, he should not be allowed to visit the United States of America. And, therefore, the ban came through, and the ban was subsequently held, repeated even as he rose and became more and more powerful.
What we need to remember about Modi is that within a three—or, within five years, he won two or three—three successful elections in the state of Gujarat on the back of the massacre, which tells you something quite frightening about Indian democracy, and possibly all democracies, that we actually go on a—we travel a very, very—walk the razor’s edge, if you like, that democracy is the will of the people, but the day democracy becomes the rule of the mob and mobocracy and majoritarianism, and you can actually whip up mob hysteria through an election process, which Modi has successfully done in 2002 itself, after the massacre, 2007 and then in 2012 again, that is what is a really worrying signal as far as Modi and Trump are concerned, because they represent, in a sense, the democratic will of the people, but they also represent subversion of democratic institutions, which are checks and balances to majoritarianism and supremacism within democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist and journalist based in Mumbai, India—we’re speaking to her by Democracy Now! video stream in Mumbai—and Prachi Patankar, who is here in New York, activist and educator, co-founder of South Asia Solidarity Initiative. Prachi, this $2 billion sale of Guardian drones, the significance of this? I know Modi is going next to Israel and was sort of playing both. In case he didn’t—things didn’t go well here, he could get them perhaps from Israel. But talk about the significance of these drones. And then the F-16s being built in India?
PRACHI PATANKAR: Mm-hmm. I mean, I think this is not surprising. The U.S. and India have had conversations and relationships around arms deals for almost a decade. And India is also talking with other countries, as you mentioned. But both of these countries have committed grave human rights violations in the places that they have gone to war or occupied. In the case of India, we have Kashmir, which is a place where Indian Army has around—almost 600,000 troops placed there. And the escalation of human rights violations for the Kashmiri people, against the Kashmiri activists and human rights activists there, have been going up. And given that, this is a worrisome move. I also think that given the ongoing conflicts between Pakistan and India, Afghanistan being right there and Trump talking about increasing intervention in Afghanistan, I think what U.S. is probably thinking is that they need an ally in the region, and India is one of those allies that they probably need.
AMY GOODMAN: And now Prime Minister Modi has come out in support of the climate accord—
PRACHI PATANKAR: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —is becoming a spokesperson around the world around that, and, of course, Donald Trump pulling out.
PRACHI PATANKAR: Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, yes, I think Donald Trump pulling out of the climate deal is, I think, seen by the entire world as not necessarily a good thing, I think. So, Trump, and including China—India, and including China, are, I think, seeing themselves as kind pushing that forward as countries taking a different kind of stand. But I would say, in terms of practice, what’s happening within India and what Modi has been saying internally, he has been against—he has denied climate change openly. He has been—he has made anti-science remarks also in the past. So he certainly doesn’t necessarily care about climate change. Within the policies, economic policies in India and development policies, he has been pushing for more fossil fuel extractions, more coal mining projects, and supporting companies that do that. And that has affected millions of people, who—indigenous people within different places in India, whose lives will be tremendously impacted by Modi’s development projects.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being on with us, and we will continue this discussion as we turn to Arundhati Roy, who is traveling through the United States. Prachi Patankar is activist and educator, co-founder of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative. And Teesta Setalvad is a civil rights activist and journalist based in Mumbai, India. This is Democracy Now! Arundhati Roy up next.