Our recent virtual briefing for members of the US Congress on India’s Republic Day organised by 17 organisations has kicked up a storm in Delhi. So much so, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, felt compelled to hold a special press conference to denounce the speakers and the organisers as “anti-India.”
The Ministry of External Affairs followed suit by issuing a defensive response saying that “India does not need a certificate from others.”
Our joint congressional briefings are held every two weeks to keep US legislators informed about topics of relevance to US-South Asia policy. They are co-sponsored by 17 organisations, including Hindus for Human Rights and our closest partner, the Indian American Muslim Council.
Yet, despite the long list of co-sponsors, Naqvi chose to single out the Indian American Muslim Council for his attack, completely ignoring the diverse interfaith coalition that came together to organise this event. He repeated baseless claims against the 20-year-old US organisation that has long advocated for the Indian-American Muslim community in an exemplary manner.
Among Naqvi’s allegations was the claim that the Indian American Muslim Council was “long involved in spreading anti-India propaganda” and “part of a conspiracy that claimed violence had occurred in Tripura”, that it had “a history of spreading communal violence in India” and that “everyone knows” that it is “Pakistan-sponsored”. (See the council’s rejoinder here.)
He offered no evidence whatsoever to support his preposterous claims, for there was none.
The January 26 briefing, in commemoration of the 72nd year of the Indian Republic, featured 11 speakers: Senator Ed Markey (Democrat), Representative Jim McGovern, Representative Andy Levin, Representative Jamie Raskin, former Vice President of India Hamid Ansari, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Nadine Maenza, Amnesty’s Carolyn Nash, former President of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Hakim, Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, and Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert Kennedy.
The session was hosted by Sravya Tadepalli of Hindus for Human Rights.
Yet, despite the long list of distinguished speakers, the raucous right-wing media in India took the lead in singling out only former Vice President Hamid Ansari for censure and abuse for his brief statement expressing concern at the climate of rising majoritarianism and intolerance.
Once again, jingoism sought to make up for lack of honesty and substance.
The intention of this strategy was far too obvious: they had decided to make examples of a Muslim statesman of India and a Muslim organisation in the diaspora.
Curiously, amid all the denunciations of this “anti-India” sentiment, the detractors conveniently omitted the core sentiment of almost all the speakers at the briefing: they all had personal connections with the Indian people; they loved India for its diversity; they admired what India had achieved under its secular Constitution; and they were all speaking out as friends of India about their concerns for its democracy.
All of the self-righteous indignation in the media also consciously glossed over the fact that the speakers spoke with humility – a rare commodity among politicians – and they did not talk down to India. Quite the contrary, they openly admitted that American democracy too was facing unprecedented challenges, and that the two democracies with shared values must speak to each other honestly, as friends and allies.
The hue and cry in India about our briefing compels us to ask two questions.
Who is ‘anti-India’?
Is it those who are speaking up in defense of the Indian Constitution and the principles contained within it that have served the country well for over seven decades? Or is it organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its numerous off-shoots, which literally sat out the Independence movement, but are now intent on destroying the secular Constitution?
Who is ‘anti-Hindu’?
Is it those Hindus who would return to the roots of our traditions to reclaim a progressive and inclusive Hinduism and who refuse to divide people along lines of religion, race, or caste? Or is it those who pretend to speak for all Hindus, yet have completely forgotten the true meaning of “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”, the world is a family, and seek to “other” millions of sons and daughters of the soil because of their faith?
When the Indian government speaks of not needing “certificates from others”, it may be worth recalling that it was not so long ago that Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Houston seeking endorsements from the diaspora and from US President Trump, who gladly gave it. In return, Modi gave his full-throated support to one of the worst presidents in recent US history.
Some may choose to not remember that unprecedented break in diplomatic protocol by a sitting prime minister seeming to interfere in U.S. politics. But we remember it all too well: we were outside the Houston arena during the “Howdy Modi” event in September 2019 expressing our dissent from the politics of both the leaders.
At the Democracy Summit convened in early December by US President Joe Biden, leaders from 100 governments, including Modi, made a wide range of commitments and pledges in support of democracy under three major themes: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights. These included commitments to counter efforts to combat disinformation; strengthen electoral integrity; better promote the human rights of activists, women and others.
It is unfortunate that the Indian government’s hostile reaction to our US Congressional briefing does not comport with the spirit of those solemn commitments at the Democracy Summit.
Raju Rajagopal is a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, USA.