Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint session of Congress yesterday, and progressive representatives raised concerns about extending such a prestigious honor to an individual with a track-record of human rights abuses.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced that she would be boycotting the Prime Minister's controversial address, saying: "I encourage my colleagues who stand for pluralism, tolerance, and freedom of the press to join me in doing the same." In solidarity, Representatives Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar stated that they would join her.
Among her condemnations of Modi, Ocasio-Cortez cited his complicity in the 2002 Gujarat Riots, a series of anti-Muslim riots in western India that took over 1,000 lives. Modi's push for Indian nationalism, and his belief in Hinduism as a state religion, have threatened the safety of over 172 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities who live in India.
Ocasio-Cortez also stressed that the U.S. State Department itself had previously concluded that Modi was "engaged in systematic human rights abuses of religious minorities and caste-oppressed communities."
Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives have condemned Modi's administration for a vendetta against BBC journalists that came within weeks of their documentary on the Gujarat Riots, actions which The Press Club of India described as "part of a series of attacks on the media by government agencies" that have targeted any perceived threats to the ruling establishment.
More House and Senate Democrats expressed concerns over President Biden's upcoming meeting with Modi. In a letter backed by over 70 congress members, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Pramila Jayapal urged President Biden to uphold Democratic values as the United States and India strengthen their diplomatic ties.
They expressed their concerns over India's "worrisome increase of religious intolerance toward minorities", and the fact that India has "fallen significantly in the rankings for press freedom." They also mentioned that India has been first in internet shutdowns, a strategy of censorship, for five years.
"We want that friendship to be built not only on our many shared interests but also on shared values." They wrote.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama expressed similar sentiments in an interview with CNN, saying “I do think that it is appropriate for the president of the United States, where he or she can, to uphold those principles and to challenge – whether behind closed doors or in public – trends that are troubling."
Obama cited his work with Modi on climate change, and also stated that there are national security and economic reasons to work with India. He argued that upholding democracy in India was also important, and said that "If you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart."