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Activists ask Biden to publicly rebuke Modi over human rights By Reuters

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© Reuters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a visit to the National Science Foundation with U.S. First Lady Jill Biden (not pictured) in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., June 21, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Rights advocates in Washington demanded that President Joe Biden publicly call out what they described as India’s deteriorating human rights record, saying the U.S. approach of raising the issue in private with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a failure.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, activists and academics also called for hearings in the U.S. Congress about human rights in India under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi, who is on a four-day visit to the United States.

“We can’t ignore the facts on the ground … We can’t look away, and neither can the U.S. government,” said Nadine Maenza, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and president of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Secretariat.

Critics of the Modi government’s human rights record have cited less press freedom, restrictions on minority religious rights and other forms of discrimination and backsliding on democratic rights.

The Indian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Indian government dismisses the criticism, saying its policies are aimed at the welfare of all communities and that it enforces the law equally.

The White House may bring up human rights concerns but it said that Biden will not “lecture” Modi on the issue.

“We know this administration and the Congress are well aware of the situation in India,” said Zaki Barzinji, who served in the administration of former President Barack Obama as the White House liaison to religious minorities.

“The scale of rights abuse in India has now reached a volume that the issue needs to be raised publicly (by Biden),” said Angana Chatterji, a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

The only two Muslim women members of the U.S. Congress – Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – separately said they will boycott Modi’s address to Congress on Thursday, citing allegations of abuse of Indian dissidents and minorities, especially Muslims.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders also said Modi’s “aggressive Hindu nationalism” has “left little space for India’s religious minorities.”

Since Modi took office in 2014, India has slid from 140th in the World Press Freedom Index, to 161st this year, its lowest point, while also leading the list for the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for five consecutive years.

Critics also point to a 2019 citizenship law that the U.N. human rights office described as “fundamentally discriminatory” by excluding Muslim migrants; anti-conversion legislation that challenged the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief; and the revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status in 2019.

There has also been demolition of properties owned by Muslims in the name of removing illegal construction; and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.

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