Modi’s White House visit highlights deep diaspora divides

Once banned from the U.S., Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is arriving in Washington, D.C., to a diaspora whose support is two-thirds of what it is back home.

Many South Asian Americans have mixed feelings as they prepare themselves for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the White House this week. 

As some get ready to gather in Washington, D.C., both to welcome and protest him, data from a 2021 study underscores just how torn the diaspora is when it comes to the controversial leader — and it shows that his popularity among Indian Americans falls short of how he is received in India. 

This week marks Modi’s first official state visit to the U.S., which had not invited an Indian prime minister since 2009. Modi was once banned from the U.S. for the role he allegedly played in the deadly Gujarat riots, in which 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

For many community leaders, a historic moment is severely marred by that and other aspects of Modi’s human rights record, including censoring journalists and stripping autonomy from the region of Kashmir.

“For this kind of a ruler to be invited to a state dinner by an American president and to be given an opportunity to speak to a joint session of Congress, where he’s going to talk about the ideals of democracy, is just mind-boggling,” said Ajit Sahi, the advocacy director for the Indian American Muslim Council. 

The study, conducted by the Carnegie Endowment, found that Modi’s approval rating is much lower among Indian Americans (50%) than among Indians living in India (77%). Dozens of lawmakers in both houses of Congress signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to address human rights concerns with Modi during his visit.

“This is an important relationship that we need to continue and build on as it relates to human rights,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing last month.

Sahi said that though Hindu nationalist sentiment in diaspora communities cannot be ignored, he thinks college-educated young people who grew up in the U.S. are distancing themselves from Modi’s politics. 

“The American values of liberalism, progressivism, equality for all, justice for all, equality before the law, I think these are the things that more or less get deeply rooted in the psyche, especially if you were born and raised here,” he said. 

But the diaspora in the U.S. is still split down the middle in terms of support for Modi. According to the study, 49% of Indian Americans rate his performance favorably, either strongly approving or approving of him; 31% disapprove of his performance; and 20% expressed no opinion on him at all. 

“It’s a polarized space,” said Sunita Viswanath, a co-founder of the civil rights group Hindus for Human Rights. “There’s very little scope for bridge-building. … On the one hand, you have this mainstream Hindu response, which is that India’s national leader is coming to town and is being greeted by the American president with a state dinner, and that puts India on the map.”

On the other hand, those in minority religions and castes oppressed in India say the visit feels as though the U.S. is validating the structural bias their families face, Viswanath said. Many in diaspora spaces say that bias has followed them

“Inclusive secular democracy means the right for all the different religions to exist and practice freely,” she said. “We are Hindus, we are proud Hindus, but our Hinduism and our devotion to secular democracy, whether it’s in America, where most of us live, or in India, where most of us are from, that is what is motivating us.” 

As South Asians in both camps plan to assemble in Washington throughout Modi’s three-day visit, some national organizations are urging Biden to address his recent actions. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement last week denouncing Modi’s media crackdown and the arrests of journalists since he came to power in 2014. 

“Journalists critical of the government and the BJP party have been jailed, harassed, and surveilled in retaliation for their work,” CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg said in the statement. “India is the world’s largest democracy, and it needs to live up to that by ensuring a free and independent media — and we expect the United States to make this a core element of discussions.”

The Hindu American Foundation declined to comment on Modi’s visit. Overseas Friends of the BJP, an international arm of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Council on American Islamic Relations released a video and a petition opposing Modi’s visit to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday because of his anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and anti-Sikh policies. 

“The evidence of Modi’s expanding effort to place a boot firmly on the collective heads of India’s religious minorities is extensive,” the petition said.

Though it’s hard to predict how many Indian Americans will gather outside the White House, Modi’s 2019 trip to the U.S. drew over 50,000 to Houston for a rally called “Howdy Modi.” President Donald Trump co-hosted the event, calling it a “profoundly historic event.”

Viswanath remembers the experience four years ago, protesting outside the stadium as fellow Indian Americans poured inside. 

“I was holding my sign, and people were streaming into the stadium dressed in their finest,” she said. “They looked like me. They looked like my family. It was one of those moments where I’m grateful I’m on this side of history. … Our deep hope, our ardent hope, is that as we build this space, Hindus will join us.”

Sakshi Venkatraman is a reporter for NBC Asian America.