The United States should proceed with caution, rather than a warm embrace, for Narendra Modi, who will soon become India’s prime minister (“Modi’s landslide is a fresh start for India,” editorial, May 21). Minnesota’s Indian-American diaspora has been carefully monitoring Modi’s rise to power, and The Advocates for Human Rights shares their concerns that Modi’s leadership may mean not a “fresh start” but much worse treatment for India’s religious minorities.
The claim of Modi supporters, repeated by the Star Tribune, that Modi “has been cleared by the Indian judicial system” for his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots — in which between 1,200 and 2,500 Muslims were killed — shades the truth. United Nations experts have described the investigations as “flawed from the outset,” citing victim and witness intimidation, police inaction, destruction of evidence, and inadequate investigations. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot calls the Gujarat justice system “dysfunctional.” Zakia Jafri, whose husband was killed in the riots, has challenged the conclusions of the investigatory team, and her appeal is still pending.
Modi was never brought to trial for his role, and Muslims in Gujarat and in Minnesota are deeply troubled about continuing impunity for government officials who quietly sanctioned or failed to act to quell the violence. Earlier this year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief described the violence and impunity as “part of a broader pattern of instigating fear into the minorities, sending them a message they don’t belong to this country unless they either keep at the margins or turn to Hinduism.”
Modi’s election creates further cause for concern. Modi has ruled the Indian state of Gujarat since 2001, and in 2003 Gujarat passed its Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which requires a person who wants to convert to any religion other than Hinduism to get permission from a district magistrate to do so.
Converts in Gujarat have to undergo what the U.N. Special Rapporteur calls “a humiliating bureaucratic procedure, exposing themselves and explaining the reasons” for their conversion so that the government can “assess the genuineness of conversion.” The law also subjects people to up to three years in prison for inducing a person to convert.
Last month, the former head of Modi’s party, the BJP, said the party plans to introduce a national anti-conversion law.
In praising Modi’s economic advances in Gujarat, the Editorial Board neglects stark religious exclusion. In 2012, the Gujarat High Court questioned the Gujarat government’s use of its Disturbed Areas Act to block the sale of properties by Hindus to Muslims, a law that has entrenched segregation in the state.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections, communal violence escalated in India yet again, apparently fueled by the Hindu nationalist rhetoric of Modi and the BJP. Most recently, on May 1, dozens of Muslims were killed in the northeastern state of Assam in a wave of election-week violence.
The editorial urges Modi to “modify” the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has long expressed concern about Modi’s and the BJP’s close affiliation with Hindu nationalist organizations that adhere to an ideology that “holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” Any change must start with Modi himself and involve accountability for his past actions and the ideologies and policies he promoted.
The editorial correctly observes that a productive bilateral relationship between the United States and India is important, but shared economic interests should not blind us to human rights concerns. As I testified in Congress before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission last month, the U.S. State Department must integrate concern for religious freedom into our bilateral relationship with India. We must proceed with caution to ensure that the world’s largest democracy does not use economic might and the will of the majority to further marginalize its religious minorities.
Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.