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Modi’s State Visit: Biden Embraces Indian Leader Despite Rights Crackdown

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President Joe Biden is hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a four-day state visit this week amid growing concerns about the Indian leader’s human rights record. Modi has been prime minister since 2014, during which time he has cracked down on dissent, curtailed the free press, targeted Muslims and other minorities and pushed an aggressive form of Hindu nationalism that violates the pluralistic vision of modern India’s founders. For years, Modi was banned from even entering the United States over his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left over 1,000 dead in Gujarat, where Modi was the chief minister. Despite criticism of the state visit from some progressive lawmakers, the White House sees India as a key partner in countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. We go to Mumbai to speak with Rana Ayyub, Indian journalist and global opinions writer for The Washington Post.

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StorySep 29, 2015Thousands Protest Indian PM Narendra Modi in U.S. over Human Rights Record
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington as part of a four-day state visit. President Biden will hold a formal state dinner for Modi tonight. Modi will also address a joint session of Congress today. He becomes the first Indian prime minister to address Congress twice.

This comes as the Biden administration is attempting to strengthen military and diplomatic ties with India as part of an effort to counter China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific region. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to New Delhi.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: We are absolutely not trying to establish a NATO in the Indo-Pacific. We continue to work with like-minded countries to ensure that the region remains free and open so that commerce can prosper and ideas can continue to be exchanged. And so, we will continue that work. And so, certainly, India and us share the same vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration’s warm embrace of Narendra Modi is a marked shift in U.S. policy. For years, Modi was banned from even entering the United States over his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left over 1,000 dead in Gujarat, where Modi was the chief minister. Human rights groups have decried Modi’s record as prime minister.

At least five Democratic lawmakers have announced plans to boycott Modi’s joint address to Congress today. They’re Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. In a post on social media, Tlaib wrote, “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 said.

More than 70 Democrats in the House and Senate have also signed a letter urging Biden to focus on human rights in talks with Modi. One of the signatories of the letter is Jamie Raskin, who said he will also not attend Modi’s speech, but not as an act of protest; instead, Raskin will be attending his daughter’s wedding.

We go now to Mumbai, where we’re joined by the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who’s a global opinions writer for The Washington Post. She’s the author of the Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.

Rana, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us from Mumbai. If you can talk about the royal treatment that Narendra Modi is getting here on his four-day trip? He led yoga exercises on World Yoga Day yesterday in front of the United Nations, now the joint session of Congress, and then a lavish state dinner with President Biden tonight. Your response?

RANA AYYUB: [inaudible] again. It’s always good to see India getting this kind of treatment, acknowledgment in the U.S. as a country, as a democracy, right? And Indians for the longest time, you know, and the kind of stereotypes about India for the longest time have been about snake charmers, etc., etc.

Having said that, what does India bring on the table which is its biggest asset? Its democracy, India’s democratic nature, its constitution, its secularism, its inclusiveness. In the nine years that Narendra Modi has been in power, it has been on a decline. And the U.S., more than any other country, is aware, because just about a month before Prime Minister Modi was in the United States, the United States Religious Freedom Report called India a country that’s attacking its minorities, its 200 million Muslim minorities. The U.S. is very well aware of what’s happening.

But it is opening up, it’s rolling the red carpet for Modi, because at the end of the day what matters is that the U.S. needs an ally against China, an ally against Russia. The U.S. needs India as a country with 1.4 billion population. The U.S. — I mean, geographically, India is more well placed than any other Asian country. So, human rights, I mean, really, is that even a concern anymore for world leaders? I mean, it is embarrassing to kind of see this. I really wish that human rights was also something that was considered through this royal treatment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Rana, if you could elaborate on what the situation is, in fact, inside India? You’ve written extensively on the increasing crackdown on the press, as well as the systematic attacks against not just Muslims, but also the Dalit community in India. If you could explain what the situation is?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Nermeen, this year, India is on the 161st position in the World Press Freedom Index, just about three positions above Russia. This is the world’s largest democracy. This year, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of opposition, has been sentenced to two years in prison for a defamation case. At this point of time, think tanks in India have had their licenses revoked. Human rights activists are in jail.

Muslims, 220 million Muslim population; the Dalits, as you rightly pointed out, the lower caste in India; the Christian minorities — at this point of time the northeastern state of Manipur, when Prime Minister Modi has not spoken a single word about the northeastern state of Manipur, where for the last four weeks more than a hundred people have lost their lives between two tribal factions. That’s where the state of minorities is in India. Right? And not just Muslim minorities, but across the board.

And these are the ultimate realities. Our textbooks are changing. Our lived reality is changing. Our people are being lynched on the streets on allegation of consuming beef. History is being rewritten in India, where Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being revisited as some kind of hero.

I just wrote a piece in The Washington Post about India’s biggest film industry, Bollywood. It is being weaponized with anti-Muslim hate with some of the most Islamophobic films. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an election rally just a month before he is just visiting the United States, campaigned for the film, endorsed the film and emphatically asked the people in the rally to go watch the film, a film which is Islamophobic, which says that Muslims are engaging in acts of terror. That’s the reality of a country of 1.4 billion population, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rana, could you also respond to what some have suggested is playing into this lavish reception of Modi in the U.S., namely, the increasing prominence and also simply the growth of the Indian diaspora here in the U.S.? It’s the country’s — one of the country’s largest immigrant groups and the fastest-growing voting bloc. So, if you could speak about this diaspora, the Indian diaspora here, and to what extent they’re sympathetic to the Modi government?

RANA AYYUB: Well, the Indian diaspora, I mean, historically, has always been very, very pro-Modi, and it’s a very, very strong and very, very influential bloc of people in the United States — not just in the United States, it’s all over the world, right? The Indian diaspora has been — has contributed in all spheres, in all aspects of life.

But the Indian diaspora, I mean, for the first time in as far as I remember, you saw bulldozers, which have become symbols of Muslim repression, being used by the diaspora in Republic Day parades in New Jersey. I have not seen something like that before.

So, Indian diaspora, by and large, historically, even after the 2002 riots, when Prime Minister Modi presided over — or, was the chief minister when a thousand Muslims were massacred, were very vocal in their support of Prime Minister Modi. In fact, when Mr. Modi was not — or, was denied visa by the United States for his checkered history on human rights, the diaspora in the U.S. played a key part in making sure that Modi was brought into the United States, that Modi’s popularity increased.

So, diaspora is extremely significant to what we are seeing right now. In fact, when Modi was at the Trump rally just on his previous visit, when Trump hosted Modi, and, you know, Modi asked the diaspora to vote for Trump, both of them know that the Indian diaspora is a big voting bloc that is extremely significant, at that point of time to Trump, and, of course, now to Biden. It isn’t — it is something that cannot be ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the nonaligned posture of India when it comes to China and the United States? Would you say that is a key reason the U.S. is rolling out the red carpet for him? And also, Rana, you’re in Mumbai, so you can’t be in Washington, D.C. But after joint comments between Biden and Modi this afternoon, they’re going to have a kind of joint news conference. I mean, they’re going to allow journalists to ask questions. And apparently, it’s — and you can tell us if this is the case — extremely unusual for Narendra Modi to take questions from the press. He hasn’t held a single news conference in India since becoming prime minister about nine years ago. In May 2019, he attended a press conference but did not take questions. What question —

RANA AYYUB: Yes, he attended [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: — would you ask him?

RANA AYYUB: What question would I ask him? I would say that he should take a press conference in India, to begin with, and, basically, speak to us journalists. And, I mean, here is a man — I mean, I have a lot of questions to ask him, but here is a man who has looked at the media with a great deal of disdain. I mean, even if you see the BBC documentary during his post-Gujarat days, you know, when British journalists questioned him about human rights, he said, “You guys are propagandists.”

Mr. Modi has not taken a single press conference in nine years as the prime minister. It has never before happened in the history of democratic India. His ministers have referred to journalists as “news traitors” and “presstitutes.” Some of India’s top journalists have been attacked by this government — Kashmiri journalists, I have to add here. There is a full-page ad in The Washington Post where journalists are — with journalists mentioned by multiple journalism organizations who have been behind bars for writing critical stories of Mr. Modi.

I believe that he’s taking a press conference today, but I’m also told it’s just about one question from the foreign press and one question from the Indian press. So I’m not sure what kind of a press conference this is going to be and how many scathing questions will be asked about him. But if I have to ask him one question, it would be: Take a press conference in India and stop stifling democratic and independent voices in the country, and what is he doing to that effect?

AMY GOODMAN: And that issue of China, the nonaligned posture of India right now, and how critical that is to the United States to put pressure on Modi to take sides?

RANA AYYUB: Absolutely, Amy. I mean, we just saw that Tony Blinken was in China, and then we saw what happened with President Biden calling him a dictator. So, at this point of time, the only — one of the most significant allies that the United States can count on is India, although India has — I mean, and India needs the United States as much, because China is trying to exert its influence on India’s northeastern borders and northeastern states. So we also have a China problem, as much as the United States has a China problem. So, I think China is looming large over this entire discussion with Modi, besides the fact that, as opposed to China, we are one of the biggest markets for labor. So, that is something that is being considered. So, I think China is playing a very, very big role in this. And so is Russia, right?

But at the end of the day, India has always been this nonaligned partner, I mean, historically, right? So I don’t think it’s going to change that status very soon. I don’t think India can — the U.S. can count on India as an ally. But I think at this point of time for both India and the U.S., it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. We have to see how long does this last.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rana, could you talk about India’s growing role, not only as a regional power, which, arguably, it’s always been, in South Asia, but also as a global power? India is set to host the G20 summit as the president of the G20 in September in India. And if you could just speak about how this fits in, Modi’s visit, to India’s increasing role under his leadership around the world?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Mr. Modi has been — you know, for the last one year, India is preparing for the G20 summit. He has been meeting world leaders. He went to Australia, where he got a massive reception. He went to Papua New Guinea. He has been going to countries. He is part of the Quad. So, at this point of time, geographically, because of its geopolitical position, India has a very, very significant role to play in global politics. But this is — and we are — I mean, in a country of 1.4 billion people, some of the most skilled people that we have to offer, across platforms, across, you know, whether it is engineers or all sorts of skill sets, Indians are everywhere. So, we are in a race of power, which the world is looking at, and that nobody can deny.

But this visit that we are looking at, Modi’s visit to the United States, is also going to be a significant visit for India domestically, because Modi is going to the next general election in India in 2024. So, Modi has been selling this idea of what he calls in Hindi the “vishwaguru,” or the global leader. And India has been telling — he has been telling Indians that he’s the one who’s negotiating a peace deal between Russia and the world. He’s talking about taking on China. So, I think he is now — the last two general elections in India, he’s gone over domestic issues. In the 2024 general elections, Modi is going to posture himself as the new world leader which every country is looking for to solutions, that that’s the role of India on the global stage.

AMY GOODMAN: And that issue of Russia, Russia invading Ukraine, then India becomes the primary buyer of Russian crude oil. Can you talk about the significance of this? And do you think that Modi could become a mediator on the Ukraine war?

RANA AYYUB: Well, I would not say that Modi could play the mediator. We have been buying Russian oil, and a lot of editorials have said that we have saved the economy by buying cheap Russian oils. At this point of time, I do not think India — not just Modi, but any — even the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, has said that probably he would have told the same line as Narendra Modi. I do not think India is going to take a position vis-à-vis Russia. Indian prime minister has said that he is trying to broker peace vis-à-vis Russia. He’s going to look at a peaceful solution. But as far as Russia is concerned, Modi and Putin have a long-standing friendship. And India and Russia have had a unique relationship over the past decades. I do not think that, you know, Mr. Modi — President Biden is rolling the red carpet, but I don’t think he can get Prime Minister Modi to agree to something significant on Russia just yet. There’s a lot of talk about this, but we have not seen anything significant vis-à-vis Russia on India’s part.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rana, finally, before we conclude, if you could talk about, I mean, the fact that you’ve just mentioned — I mean, India has always been the largest importer of arms from Russia. Now there’s some discussion about how India is now diversifying because of the shortage of arms in Russia, given the war in Ukraine. And what the U.S. hopes to arrange with India in this respect, to provide military equipment from the U.S. to India?

RANA AYYUB: Could you repeat the question, please, Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’m saying that because India has relied principally on Russia for its military imports, the vast majority coming from Russia to India, but India is now diversifying the source of its arms, including possibly from the U.S. What do you expect to come out of this meeting here now on military — on the military?

RANA AYYUB: Well, I mean, Indian pundits and D.C. punditry has been — political analysts have been saying that probably there is going to be a shift in terms of, you know, U.S. offering its own arms and weapons to India and that probably there is going to be a deal, but which will be announced tomorrow or day after. I’m going to look at it with a great deal of skepticism and apprehension. I’m going to wait to see what comes out of it. But if that does happen, I still am not very optimistic that Mr. Modi is going to take a position on Russia, even if the fact that we have multiple sources of getting our arms and weapons besides Russia. I don’t think that is something that we need to get extremely optimistic about. I don’t think that it’s going to change the situation just yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Rana Ayyub, we want to thank you for being with us, Indian journalist, global opinions writer for The Washington Post, author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, speaking to us from Mumbai, India.

Coming up, we look at U.S.-China relations as President Biden calls for Xi Jinping — calls Xi Jinping a dictator. Back in 30 seconds.

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