Days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the United States, its senators painted a dismal picture of India as a land of 12 million “slaves”, human rights abuses, gender violence and a country where civil society is under constant attack.
They said India was deliberately targeting Christian organisations and their “researchers” by harassing them, denying them visas and revoking their licenses. Religious intolerance and sectarian tensions in the country are increasing.
In equally harsh terms they dismissed Modi government’s economic reforms as inadequate and not truly “free market”. They complained about red tape, high tariffs, lack of market access for American companies, and inadequate protection for intellectual property.
Even India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group came in for criticism as Senator Ed Markey claimed an exemption for India would further “infuriate” Pakistan into making more nuclear weapons. There were also probing questions on India getting too close to Iran since Modi was just in Tehran.
Timed for maximum impact
It was not the kind of build-up New Delhi had anticipated for Modi’s visit but American lawmakers seemed determined to deliver a hard blow. Senator after senator rained down on Modi’s record just as the prime minister was marking his two years in government.
The questions were directed at Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, who was testifying at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Indo-US relations. Biswal defended the relationship and tried to push back but it seemed the senators were determined to embarrass both the State Department and the Indian government.
Not for the last 15 years has India taken such a bashing on Capitol Hill, the home of the US Congress. It was reminiscent of the early 90s when the US Congress regularly attacked India for alleged human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir, largely at the behest of Pakistan’s lobbying.
To say the negative tone and content of the hearing were a surprise would be an understatement given the largely positive narrative of Indo-US relations. Officially, the two countries have a mature, strategic and full relationship covering just about every aspect of human endeavour.
But clearly not all is well. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its powerful Republican chairman, Bob Corker, sent a very public message: India’s domestic climate stinks with all the reported incidents against women, Dalits, Christians and Muslims.
The hearing was timed for maximum impact – exactly two weeks before Modi’s arrival in the American capital and on Capitol Hill.
According to a Congressional source, anger has been bubbling over the past year as reports kept surfacing about incidents of communal tension, lynchings, hangings and sedition charges being filed against students in India.
“Is this 2016 and a democracy with which we share values? Ford Foundation is in trouble. Greenpeace has been kicked out,” the Congressional aide continued. “If the State Department wants to hide things, it doesn’t mean the Congress will too,” he said, adding that pressure had come from constituents and the human rights community to raise questions on India’s record.
New Delhi’s recent decision to deny visas to members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a quasi government body, to visit India also shaped senators’ thinking. It bolsters the feeling that the Indian government is uncooperative on a range of human rights issues, the aide said.
New Delhi doesn’t help even in “child abduction” cases. These cases mostly affect Indian American couples where a spouse flies off to India with the child and disappears to escape American courts and custody battles.
Biswal, the State Department’s representative, told the senators the Obama Administration raises these concerns privately with the Modi government but the challenges in India are huge. She added that Indian civil society was fighting back with a vociferous campaign against all forms of intolerance and intimidation.
That didn’t satisfy Chairman Corker, who is reportedly upset with India over the non-consummation, so far, of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear deal in the shape of a contract for an American reactor. If the business was good, some of the anger would subside.
Corker opened the hearing with a statement, which while noting the “overall trajectory” of relations as “positive,” stressed that “hopeful rhetoric” had “far exceeded actual tangible achievements.” He called for a “sober and pragmatic” approach, implying the Obama Administration’s approach was anything but.
‘Largest number of slaves’
“India also has the largest number of slaves. I am talking of people working for a dollar a day,” he said. “How does a country like this have 12 to 14 million slaves in the year 2016? How does that happen?” Corker pointedly asked. “I mean, seriously, do they have just zero prosecution abilities, zero law enforcement? I mean, how could this happen? It’s on that scale, it’s pretty incredible.”
The use of an emotionally loaded word like “slave” for various groups of oppressed people – from bonded and child labour to trafficked men and women, migrant workers under debt and child soldiers – is a relatively recent phenomenon. Western human rights activists have used the term “slaves” to shock and awe countries where these practices are prevalent and to gain attention in western capitals.
The term is a special hallmark of the Walk Free Foundation, an organisation started by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest. The foundation publishes a “global slavery index” from which Senator Corker pulled the figure of 12 to 14 million slaves in India, according to an aide in his office.
He wasn’t the only one to raise difficult issues. Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said religious freedom, women and minority rights and press freedom were all under attack.
Senator Cory Gardner specifically asked about Compassion International, a Christian missionary organisation, which has been reportedly been targeted by the Indian government. Its assets have been seized after income tax raids and 12 separate visa applications have been denied, he said. “There seems to be a real crackdown on religious NGOs by the Indian government in the last year,” Gardner said.
Compassion International “sponsors” Indian children for education and its website clearly says it’s saving souls in the “name of Jesus.” It has been working in India since the 1960s.
Indian diplomats were unavailable for comment but they have been expecting this thunderstorm ever since reports about communal tensions, anti-Dalit incidents, ghar wapsi or reconversion drives to Hinduism, suicides and hangings began surfacing with alarming frequency. The problem is they can’t talk themselves out of this mess.
But to put this public airing in context – the senators are, no doubt, responding to domestic pressures from the vast human rights community in the US. Some of them, like Corker, are also genuinely involved in efforts to highlight and end what they call “slavery.”
Modi’s past, while mostly set aside for political reasons, is not entirely forgotten by those who have a stake in shining the light on human rights issues. And since he hasn’t taken a clear, strong stand against the wild and communal elements in his larger family known as the Sangh parivar, American politicians have found an easy handle.
If Modi has political reasons for not curbing the rabid elements of the parivar, US lawmakers have their reasons for embarrassing him and his government.