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US President Joe Biden and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, US, June 23, 2023.  © 2023 Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States included yoga at the United Nations, an address to the U.S. Congress that promised strides in the bilateral partnership, and a lavish state dinner at the White House with 400 guestsPresident Joe Biden spoke of the “unlimited potential” of ties between India and the United States.

What might have been a moment of pride for India, however, was marred by comments made by his ministers and party leaders that only reinforce the lamentable record of the Modi government’s abusive and discriminatory policies at home. A litany of reports, including many by the U.S. government itself, document intensifying attacks, discrimination, and persecution of groups targeted due to their religion, caste, ethnicity and public opinion.

Modi, in his speeches, took pains to preempt or counteract criticisms. He hailed India’s diversity and democratic standards. But actions and statements by members and supporters of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contradicted those claims with outraged condemnation of Americans — activists, lawmakers, journalists, even former President Barack Obama — who had called for human rights protections in India. The bigotry and intolerance reflected in the backlash highlight a pattern with the BJP that threatens to undermine India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy.

On the eve of the state visit, U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden about democratic and human rights backsliding under Modi’s leadership, as did more than 50 civil society groups, mostly from the Indian-American diaspora. Trucks in New York City carried billboard screens about human rights failures tagging Modi as the “#CrimeMinisterOfIndia.” The editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post encouraged the U.S. government to distinguish India’s long democratic tradition from the abusive actions of the current government.

Verbal Attacks for Criticism

BJP leaders only reinforced those negative impressions with their acerbic lashing out against two incidents of criticism during Modi’s trip. One comment came from former U.S. President Barack Obama, who in an interview with CNN during Modi’s visit suggested that it was important to talk “honestly” about the Modi government’s failure to protect minorities, which he warned could set off “large internal conflicts.” The other perceived criticism came in the form of mere questions during a standard joint news conference with Biden, which the White House persuaded Modi to join — a rarity for himWall Street Journal correspondent Sabrina Siddiqui asked Biden and Modi questions about reports of worsening discrimination against religious minorities in India.

The BJP leadership swiftly attacked Obama and Siddiqui on social media and Indian television, and were soon joined by online trolls known for amplifying such rhetoric. The BJP chief minister in India’s Assam state, in an echo of attacks by former U.S. President Donald Trump, highlighted Obama’s Muslim middle name, Hussein, in a tweet that essentially threatened Indian Muslims with prosecution for criticizing the Modi government, as Obama had.

Modi’s finance and defense ministers also harshly attacked Obama, sidestepping the substance of his remarks and accusing him of hypocrisy.

The Biden administration condemned the BJP’s attacks on Siddiqui, which had caustically flagged her Muslim heritage and her relatives from Pakistan and questioned her agenda and professionalism. “We absolutely condemn any harassment of journalists,” a White House spokesperson said, adding, “It’s completely unacceptable,” and “antithetical to the very principles of democracy that were on display last week during the state visit.”

What Kind of `Voice’ for the Global South?

India’s current and past governments have often sought to give voice to the Global South, where many countries still bear the burden of inequity, injustices, and social rifts — legacies of colonialism or Cold War-era political interference. India can speak with authority about how Western countries now need to address new challenges linked to climate change, food insecurity, and fair access to health, technology, and development.

India should also speak out against human rights abuses in other countries, whether in the United Statesand other close allies, or in Myanmar, China, Sudan, and elsewhere. India, among the world’s largest economies, has become a key trade and security partner to the United States and other economic powers, and is increasingly prominent in global affairs.

But India’s actions and statements on the world stage will never be convincing if the Indian government doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to allow scrutiny of its own record, while truly committing to the “shared values” that Modi and Biden enthusiastically celebrated. India will have little credibility on issues of human rights or social justice if the Modi government and the BJP continue to follow the path of divisiveness and brittle defensiveness.

The BJP needs to stop attacking messengers and instead start addressing India’s worsening human rights situation. Modi, not only as prime minister but as a leader of the BJP, needs to stop accommodating purveyors of hate and condemn their toxic attacks. His government should ensure that authorities, including in state governments where his party is in power, investigate and prosecute those responsible for inciting or carrying out violence against minorities. Indian authorities should immediately drop politically motivated cases against political opponents, journalists, and civil society critics.

Modi has described India as the “Mother of Democracy.” But the slogan can have no meaning unless he uses the power of his office and his immense personal popularity to ensure the government genuinely upholds democratic principles, including equality, pluralism, and basic freedoms of speech and thought.

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