WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) – Narendra Modi’s denial that discrimination against minorities exists in India contradicts thorough documentation by rights advocates, according to activists disappointed by President Joe Biden’s embrace of the Indian prime minister.
Asked at a press conference with Biden on Thursday what steps he was willing to take to “improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech,” Modi suggested they did not need to be improved.
“There is no end to data that shows Modi is lying about minority abuse in India, and much of it can be found in the State Department’s own India country reports, which are scathing on human rights,” said Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of the group Hindus for Human Rights.
In reports released this year on human rights and religious freedom, the U.S. State Department raised concerns over treatment of Muslims, Hindu Dalits, Christians and other religious minorities in India while also criticizing a crackdown on journalists and dissidents.
“We have proved democracy can deliver,” Modi said on Thursday. “When I say deliver – caste, creed, religion, gender – there is no space for any discrimination.”
The Indian government denies the charges of discrimination, saying its policies aim for the welfare of all communities without bias and that it enforces the law equally. India’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on rights concerns raised by activists during Modi’s U.S. visit, which began on Tuesday and ends on Friday.
Biden, who hosted Modi for a lavish state visit, said he discussed human rights and other democratic values with Modi during their talks in the White House but he did not publicly criticize Modi, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or India’s government on the topic.
India’s importance for the U.S. to counter China and the economic ties between the countries make it difficult for Washington to criticize human rights in the world’s largest democracy, political analysts said.
Rights advocates said that by not publicly calling out the human rights situation in India, Biden had lost their trust.
“Biden did nothing. He failed on his campaign promises of promoting human rights,” said Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of Hindutva Watch, a group that monitors reports of attacks on Indian minorities.
“The Biden administration should maintain valuable relations with India but call out and sanction Mr. Modi’s illiberal politics and arbitrary rule,” said Angana Chatterji, a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.
India has slid from 140th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2014 to 161st this year, its lowest point, compared to the United States at 45th. India also leads the list for the highest number of government-imposed internet shutdowns globally for five consecutive years.
The U.N. human rights office described a 2019 citizenship law as “fundamentally discriminatory” for excluding Muslim migrants. Critics have also pointed to anti-conversion legislation that challenged the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief and the revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status in 2019 as well.
There has also been demolition of properties owned by Muslims in the name of removing illegal construction and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.
Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Trevor Hunnicutt and Grant McCool