This month Time magazine released its annual “TIME 100” list of the year’s most influential people and included Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After all, he is the newly-inaugurated leader of the “World’s Largest Democracy.” However, it is disappointing to read a laudatory profile of this deeply controversial politician that does not have even one reference to his deplorable human rights record. To add insult to injury, this profile is written by our own President, Barack Obama.
The President described Prime Minister Modi to be a “reformer” who aims to “reduce extreme poverty” and “empower women and girls,” without mention of Modi’s membership in the Hindu ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization, also known as the RSS. Nor did he mention the fact that as Governor of the Indian State of Gujarat, Modi either condoned, or at the very least failed to prevent, the massacre of more than one thousand Gujarati Muslims by nationalist mobs. We should expect more from our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President, particularly if the United States wants to be seen as a nation committed to advancing human rights.
Many of India’s leaders and intellectuals, including founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, have described the RSS as a fascist organization, a “private army” with similarities to the Nazi Party. Its contributions to the Gujarat massacre as well as the destruction of historic mosques have been well documented by groups like Human Rights Watch. More recently, the RSS escalated its forced conversions across India, publicly announcing its intention to “allow Christians and Muslims to return to their original religion” without facing resistance from Modi’s government. Yet President Obama, and much of the western media, fail to address these disturbing associations when discussing Modi.
When he came to the United States shortly after his election, the press and politicians greeted him as a “rock star.” Meanwhile, members of the Indian diaspora that were representative of many religious backgrounds, protested publicly throughout his visit. This month, on April 16, Canadian Sikhs were arrested while peacefully demonstrating against Modi’s visit to a Vancouver gurdwara with Canadian PM Stephen Harper.
Having suffered similar killings and mob rule during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the Sikh community stood in solidarity with the Gujarat survivors.
If western leaders like Obama and Harper want to acknowledge the role of India in today’s global economy and geopolitical sphere, it is more than understandable. With an aggressively expanding military (surpassed by only the US, Russia, and China) and the world’s fastest growing economy, the West must recognize and appreciate India’s strategic value as an ally and partner in tackling complex global challenges. However, we cannot let this blind us to the murky past of its current Prime Minister, as well as his questionable commitment to human rights, particularly with regard to India’s religious minorities.
In January of this year, when President Obama traveled to India and addressed its citizens, he talked of India’s diversity, and the need to ensure the right of all people to practice their faith, or to choose no faith at all, without fear of persecution. By writing this glowing profile of Narendra Modi for Time magazine, he has undercut the powerful words he spoke in January, and set back the cause of human rights, in India and beyond.
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Ajeet Singh is a rising medical student at Stritch School of Medicine in Illinois. As a part of the SikhLEAD initiative of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), he works to protect and advocate for the civil rights of minority communities. Justin Collins is a writer and lawyer based in Brooklyn.