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India's Modi faces human rights criticism in US visit

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US President Joe Biden (L), and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, talk during the G20 leaders’ summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, on November 15, 2022. (Photo by AP)

More than 70 US lawmakers have expressed concerns over persisting human rights violations across India, calling on the Biden administration to raise the issue with the country's visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access," the American Congress members wrote in a Tuesday letter sent to US President Joe Biden.

The letter was signed by 75 Democratic senators and House representatives urging Biden to address human rights concerns in his talks with Modi, insisting that they are important “to a successful, strong, and long-term relationship” between the two countries.

They lawmakers further pointed out that “friendship should be based on shared values" and that "friends can and should discuss their differences in an honest and forthright way."

"That is why we respectfully request that — in addition to the many areas of shared interests between India and the US — you also raise directly with Prime Minister Modi areas of concern," the letter read.

The ultra-nationalist Modi arrived in New York on Tuesday amid concerns over what is seen as a deteriorating human rights situation under his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The lawmakers also noted that they do not endorse any particular Indian leader or political party, but explained that they do “stand in support of the important principles that should be a core part of American foreign policy."

Rights advocates, however, worry that geopolitics will overshadow human rights issues, as Washington seeks to have closer ties with India.

This is while several US rights groups plan to wage protests during Modi's visit. Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) -- who has helped organize a series of protests during Modi’s visit -- said “Our concern is that the Biden administration is whitewashing everything going on in India.”

US Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlai, who did not sign the letter, also said in a post on her Twitter account that she would boycott Modi’s planned address to Congress on Thursday.

 “It’s shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation’s capital,” she wrote. “His long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims & religious minorities, and censoring journalists is unacceptable.”

White House spokesperson John Kirby has declined to comment on whether Biden would raise the human rights issue during his talks with Modi, but said that it is "commonplace" for the US president to raise such concerns.

Ever since the right-wing Modi government gained power in India, Muslims across India continue to fall victim to hate crimes by extremist Hindu elements as well as discriminatory regulatory policies.

Opposition parties accuse the BJP government at federal and state levels of discriminating against religious minorities. Critics say Modi’s election in 2014 emboldened hard-line extremist groups that view India as a "Hindu nation" and consider its 200-million-strong Muslim minority as a foreign threat.

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