Modi touts democracy but ignores persecution

India | In address to joint session of Congress, India’s prime minister claims to love freedom, despite criticism over his country’s religious violence
by Evan Wilt
Posted 6/08/16, 04:00 pm

WASHINGTON—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves freedom and the United States of America—at least that was the impression he gave during his address to a joint session of Congress today.

The speech capped Modi’s three-day U.S. visit—his fourth since taking office in 2014. Speaking to a packed house, Modi expressed admiration for the U.S. and prompted spurts of applause by quoting Abraham Lincoln and the Star Spangled Banner and thanking America’s men and women in uniform for their service.

The leader of the world’s largest democracy opened and closed his hour-long address by touting his commitment to equality for all. He claimed India’s 1.25 billion citizens enjoy the same benefits of freedom found in the U.S. But critics took Modi’s words with a grain of salt—noting pervasive claims the prime minister has not done enough to protect India’s Christians and other religious minorities.

“The threads of freedom and liberty form a strong bond between our two democracies,” Modi said. “Our nations may have been shaped by differing histories, cultures, and faiths. Yet, our belief in democracy for our nations and liberty for our countrymen is common.”

Modi entered the House Chamber to a standing ovation, hugging smiling members of Congress on his way down the aisle. Many members invited Indian-American guests from their districts to fill the viewing balcony. Modi paused to wave to them as he made his way to the front, sparking cheers that echoed throughout the chamber.

But Modi has not always enjoyed such open arms in the U.S.

In 2002, when he was chief minister of India’s western state of Gujarat, rioting Hindus killed more than a thousand Indian Muslims. Even with so much violence under his watch, Modi never received punishment from India’s judicial system. But U.S. officials were not so quick to call him blameless. In 2005, they used the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny his visa request, barring him from entering the country because of religious freedom violations.

But when Modi became India’s prime minister, his ban on U.S. travel quietly disappeared.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members, led by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., wrote a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., prompting him to address religious liberty concerns during his private meeting with Modi.

“Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs have endured ongoing violence and harassment for decades in India, and continue to live in a climate where known perpetrators commit violence with impunity,” they wrote. “It is in the best interest of the United States and India to reaffirm religious freedom as a shared value in this growing partnership, and ensure that conversation concerning justice and accountability for such horrific acts of violence continues.”

In his speech, Modi never mentioned any conflict plaguing the 20 percent of non-Hindu citizens in his country, but he didn’t shy away from lamenting the rise of global terrorism.

After teasing Americans for loving the ancient Indian heritage of Yoga more than baseball and relying on Indian-Americans to win its spelling bees, Modi thanked the U.S. for fighting global terrorist groups and promised to aid in the battle against Islamic extremism.

“In the territory stretching from west of India’s border to Africa, it may go by different names, from Laskhar-e-Taiba, to Taliban to ISIS. But, it’s philosophy is common: of hate, murder, and violence,” Modi said. “For us to succeed, those who believe in humanity must come together to fight for it as one, and speak against this menace in one voice.”

Modi’s congressional address headlined his U.S. visit, but perhaps the biggest news from his trip came yesterday.

During a private meeting with President Barack Obama, Modi pledged to attempt ratifying the Paris climate change pact this year. World leaders drew up the deal in Paris in December, requiring countries to reduce the greenhouse gasses allegedly linked to global warming.

But it will only go into effect after 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions formally sign on. With India on board, the deal will be well over the 55 percent requirement and likely will encourage more countries to follow suit.

Modi listed an ambitious “to-do list” which included boosting India’s rural economy, building 100 “smart” cities, providing internet access for all, and plans for 21st-century rail, road, and port infrastructures. All of this, he said, will have a light carbon footprint and greater emphasis on renewable energy.

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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