Modi's India runs 'directly counter' to democratic values, says US congresswoman
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has hit out against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US and meeting with President Joe Biden, calling on the Biden administration to label India as a "country of particular concern" over ongoing attacks on Muslims and other religious minorities.
Omar, who along with a handful of other lawmakers boycotted Modi's address to a joint session of Congress on late Thursday afternoon, instead opted to host her own policy briefing on Capitol Hill, where she brought together a number of Indian American rights activists and human rights experts.
"What's happening in India runs directly counter to our democratic values," she said during the policy briefing she held in the US Capitol visitor centre in Washington.
"We are told we must now turn a blind eye to the repression because of foreign policy concerns even though human rights are supposed to be at the centre of our foreign policy."
Prime Minister Modi, and by extension India, has come under heavy criticism from rights groups for his country's treatment of religious minorities.
In March 2022, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum warned about the rising risks of mass atrocities in India against people who are not from the Hindu majority.
In 2019, New Delhi revoked Article 370 of India's constitution, the clause that granted Kashmir's Muslim-majority region semi-autonomous status within the Indian Union, and then introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, which rights groups have argued violates India's secular constitution by making religion a basis for citizenship.
In the State Department's latest report on religious freedom released this year, India was spotlighted for explicitly targeting religious minorities, joining a list of countries that includes Russia, China, and Iran for its treatment of religious minorities.
Stephen Schneck, commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said during Thursday's briefing that the task force has routinely recommended that New Delhi be listed by the State Department as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), a label given to countries where severe violations of religious freedom are taking place.
"Our reports detail over the last several years that the Indian government, at the national state and local levels, has promoted and enforced laws and policies that undermine the religious freedom of its citizens," Schneck said.
Omar said that she has reintroduced legislation calling on the Biden administration to follow through on the USCIRF's recommendation to label India as a "country of particular concern".
"We often hear India is an ally, but we've placed our allies on that list. And it doesn't and should not diminish whatever economic relationship or bilateral relationship that we have, in order for us to uplift the concerns that we have in regards to human rights," she said.
Biden jeopardising peace, stability
Speaking to a room of several dozen people at the US Capitol building, Omar noted that speaking out against India's human rights violations is something only a few members of Congress do.
Modi's address to Congress was attended by nearly every lawmaker, except for Omar and a small group of lawmakers including Rashida Tlaib, Jamie Raskin, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
Omar added that the lack of movement on addressing the human rights situation comes even as there is a growing awareness of human rights violations in other parts of the world, such as Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
"Palestinian rights is something that has a way to mobilise around. There are a lot of members of Congress who will talk about it, we will issue statements. There are a lot of people who deeply care, but we can't get a single hearing on Palestinian rights," Omar said.
"The opposite is actually true when it comes to Kashmir, we've had multiple hearings on Kashmir, but you are going to be hard-pressed to find anyone lobbying around it and you're going to be hard-pressed to find anyone talking about it."
During a joint press conference earlier on Thursday, Biden was asked whether his administration was overlooking the targeting of religious minorities and the crackdown on dissent in India.
Biden responded by saying he and Modi "had a good discussion about democratic values", but did not elaborate further.
"If the President of the United States must be the statesman he has been elected to be, and not, unfortunately, a salesman for the defence contractors, then you have to take a stand," Ajit Sahi, advocacy director for the Indian American Muslim Council, said in Thursday's briefing.
"And you have to understand that you are jeopardising peace, you are jeopardising stability by supporting the prime minister of India Narendra Modi."