A rare press briefing at the White House

On June 22, at a joint press briefing with India’s Prime Minister Modi, U.S. President Biden called on Sabrina Siddiqui, a longtime White House reporter, to ask her question. The press briefing was a rare occasion because, throughout his prime ministerial tenure, Narendra Modi has never taken questions from reporters.

Siddiqui, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal asked both heads of state to comment on criticism from within the Democratic Party about the treatment of religious minorities and the crackdown upon dissent in India.

“It is in America’s DNA and I believe in India’s DNA that the whole world has a stake in our success, both of us, in maintaining our democracies,” Biden responded. “It makes us appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions across, around the world.” He added that he had shared a straightforward discussion with PM Modi about democratic values, and that “we respect each other.”

Siddiqui then pressed PM Modi about his human rights record in India asking if his government would uphold the rights of Muslims and other minorities, as well as free speech.

Modi replied in Hindi, “We have proven that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, or gender. There is absolutely no space for discrimination.” But his response fell short of identifying steps he would be willing to take to uphold the rights of Indian minorities, nor did it address the fact that his government has systematically limited the freedom of the Indian press.

Shortly thereafter, Siddiqui was subjected to online harassment by Modi supporters. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby promptly condemned the attacks on Siddiqui, making it clear that the White House would not tolerate the backlash. “It’s completely unacceptable and it’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that…were on display last week during the state visit.”

But the harassment of journalists like Siddiqui mirror reports of similar tactics employed either by government officials or groups of Modi allies to intimidate reporters, which have become increasingly common in India. In one of its most egregious actions, the Delhi Police raided the homes and seized the electronic devices of several editors of The Wire, a reputed news organization in India, over a retracted report on the working of Meta.

The state visit

The jarring episode with Siddiqui followed a lavish welcome for the Indian Prime Minister at the White House when he arrived in Washington D.C. on his very first state visit. It’s an honor bestowed only twice before by the Biden administration, for French President Emmanuel Macaron, and for South Korean President Yon Suk Yeol.

Modi was enthusiastically received on Capitol Hill, where he addressed a joint session of Congress. The visit was viewed as a boost for Indo-U.S. relations, but it was also interpreted as a total reversal of U.S. policy towards Modi. In 2005 Modi was denied a U.S. visa due to his perceived role in Gujarat’s 2002 communal riots while he was Chief Minister.  

Concerns voiced over human rights record

The White House is not unaware of the current Indian administration’s track record on human rights violations and restrictions on press freedoms.

A 2022 U.S. state department report documented significant human rights violations in India. It described credible reports of “unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence.”

Ahead of Modi’s state visit, in an open letter, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), a group known for its dedication to social justice and upholding the principles of Hinduism, urged President Biden to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy.

And, over 70 U.S. lawmakers signed a letter to the Biden administration asking the White House to raise the issue of human rights violations with the visiting Indian delegation. The lawmakers voiced support for efforts to strengthen US-India relations, but highlighted “a series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India towards 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.” 

India’s role in U.S foreign policy

Clearly, the report did not deter the U.S. from seeking a relationship with the Modi administration. The U.S. sees advantages in closer ties with the world’s fifth-largest economy. India’s economic potential can help break China’s supply chain monopoly but also serve as a strategic diplomatic partner in advocating for shared democratic values.   

In his address to the U.S. Congress, Modi referred to India as “the mother of democracy” with its more than 2,500 political parties. He asserted that “diversity is a natural way of life,” – pushing back at criticism that his administration has systematically undermined India’s democratic norms and institutions.

The two countries issued a joint statement on the goals of their bilateral agreement showcasing new areas of cooperation from artificial intelligence to semiconductors. One key outcome was the Artemis Accords: a commitment to the safe and transparent use of space.

Human rights received a passing mention in the first paragraph. It promised a “stronger, diverse U.S.-India partnership that will advance the aspirations of our people for a bright and prosperous future grounded in respect for human rights, and shared principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.”  

Cooperation at the cost of human rights?

A relationship with India will be pivotal for U.S. plans to curtail China’s expanding global political and financial influence, and to bolster its coalition against the war in Ukraine.

But India and Russia have a long-standing relationship that dates back to the Cold War. By buying cheap Russian oil, India has helped keep the Russian economy afloat and fund the war. Modi did not condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, calling instead for respect of “territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

By aligning itself with the world’s largest democracy, the U.S. hopes to highlight the democratic values the two countries share. But alarm bells have rung over the rapid erosion of secular democracy in India for a long time.

The erosion of democratic values

Modi enjoys immense popularity in India as its duly elected leader, but since becoming prime minister in 2014, his administration has come under increasing scrutiny from international human rights groups for its failure to protect its marginalized groups and for restricting the freedom of the press.

India placed 161 out of 180 nations in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index. It slid down the Academic Freedom Index into the category of electoral autocracies, while the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked India among “flawed democracies.”

The Indian government dismissed these rankings as “perception-based” charges, in a 2022 working paper .

Rally to Save Indian Democracy

Unsurprisingly, human rights advocates rallied to protest Modi’s state visit to the White House. On June 21st, HfHR organized a rally outside the White House alongside the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Dalit Solidarity Forum, North American Manipur Tribal Associations, and Friends of India Democracy.

The rally featured speeches and performances on the importance of upholding democratic values, safeguarding human rights, and fostering religious tolerance. Sunita Vishwanathan, HfHR Executive Director called ‘The Rally to Save Indian Democracy’ a significant milestone in the collective pursuit of justice, equality, and religious freedom.

“We stand united in our commitment to upholding the core principles of Hinduism, which advocates for compassion, inclusivity, and the protection of all beings, ” she added. “We must raise our voices against any form of injustice and discrimination, and support those fighting for the preservation of democratic values in India.”

As the U.S. embarks on its new bilateral relationship with the Modi administration, one question remains unanswered. Will the Indian PM uphold the “principles of democracy” he paid homage to during his U.S. visit, and produce tangible results for marginalized communities and for press freedoms in India?

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Shabnam Arora Afsah is a writer, lawyer, and short story writer who is working on her first novel based on the Partition of India. She is a committed political activist and also runs a food blog for fun!