Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Washington on Monday a hero to a majority of the region’s large and successful Indian American community. But he will also face protests from some Indian minority groups that call him a Hindu extremist and say that he failed to control deadly religious riots a decade ago.
Modi, who was once denied a U.S. visa on human rights grounds, will visit President Obama at the White House and meet with some of the country’s top business leaders.
At a glittering reception Sunday in New York’s Madison Square Garden, nearly 20,000 Indian Americans cheered Modi, with many saying his visit should enhance India’s roller-coaster relationship with the United States and put a fresh face on his once-tainted leadership.
“It was an incredible celebration, and he gave an excellent speech,” said Paul Prashant Patel, 53, a hotel owner from College Park, Md., who took a 5 a.m. bus to the sold-out event. “Modi said our elders were known as snake charmers, and now our youth are using the mouse to reach out to the world.”
Some Muslims and Sikhs of Indian origin, however, are using Modi’s visit to raise a darker chapter from his past — religious riots that killed more than 1,000 people in Gujarat state, which he governed at the time.
Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu group. Critics say he represents a threat of Hindu extremism, rather than a promise of modernization.
Groups plan to protest outside the White House and hold public discussions to highlight their concerns. In an open letter to Obama last week, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) asked the president to raise the issue of “protection of religious minorities” in his meetings with Modi, noting that attacks on Christians and Muslims in India have increased since Modi took office in June.
“Mr. Modi may claim to have reinvented himself, but he has not changed his violent supremacist ideology,” said Ubaid Shaik, 52, an Indian Muslim neurologist in New York who heads a group that pressed for the 2005 visa denial and organized a protest outside Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Modi’s religious agenda, Shaik said, “is very dangerous for any country, especially a huge rising power like India.”
On Friday, a federal court in Manhattan issued a summons for Modi, for failing to stop the 2002 riots. A human rights group in New York is seeking damages from the prime minister on behalf of riot victims for “crimes against humanity” and other abuses.
Indian Americans are one of the most affluent and highly educated immigrant groups in the United States, with more than 2 million nationwide and tens of thousands in the D.C. region. They come from many ethnic and religious backgrounds, reflecting India’s diversity, but the largest group are Hindus, including thousands of entrepreneurs from Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Sikhs, too, have prospered as professionals and high-tech workers.
In recent years, a steady flow of immigrant business, educational and family traffic between India and the United States has helped thaw the long chill that left India nonaligned during the Cold War and kept its economy closed to U.S. investment. Today, India sends thousands of skilled workers and students to the United States each year, and many return to start their own international businesses.
Disputes continue over trade and foreign policy — India sided with Russia in the recent fight over Ukraine, for example — but much of the Indian diaspora is eager to push the two countries even closer. Many Indian Americans were delighted, for example, at Modi’s pledge Sunday to speed the visa process for visitors from the United States.
In the May elections, Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party severely defeated the ruling secular Congress Party, giving Modi a chance to reform India’s domestic economy and improve its global ties. Some Indian American leaders here are concerned that the opportunity could be undermined by revisiting an ugly episode from the past.
“India has gotten past it, and we should, too,” said Shekar Narasimhan, a longtime business leader in Northern Virginia who is active in Democratic politics.“Mr. Modi has a real mandate for change, and I hope he will break down a whole lot of barriers. His visit will be too short for specifics, but it should come away with the feeling that India and the U.S. want to do business.”
Anju Preet, 35, a cancer researcher at Georgetown University Hospital, said immigrants from across India are cheering Modi.
“Every Indian sees a leader in him, and we want to show he is welcome,” Preet said. “I don’t see the need to dwell on divisions and issues from the past.”
But to activists in Indian American minority communities, human rights groups and some members of Congress, Modi’s visit is a chance to call attention to the past, especially episodes of mass violence that pitted majority Hindus against minority Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, and to raise new warnings about the political agenda of extremist Hindu nationalist movements.
Kaleem Kawaja, a Muslim Indian engineer in Columbia, Md., said Modi has neglected low-caste Indians and the poor in general, not just minorities. Like several other critics, he said Modi has joined forces with India’s “super-rich” business leaders, who financed a slick media campaign to project him as a reformist and go-getter.
In the 2002 case, an attack on Hindus in Gujarat unleashed days of violence against Muslims, leaving more than 1,000 people dead. Modi, as chief minister, was accused of failing to intervene and colluding in the massacres, which some experts and human rights groups called ethnic and religious cleansing. He was never convicted of a crime, but a judicial appeals process was never completed.
“Mr. Modi has blood on his hands, and people are putting blinders on because they see him as a great economic reformer,” said Rajdeep Singh, policy director of the nonprofit Sikh Coalition in the District. “But this is not just about him. It is a deeper, disturbing flaw in Indian society, about the lack of justice and impunity that continues today.”
Modi’s current image is far removed from that chaos and bloodshed. On Wednesday, after India successfully launched its first spacecraft into orbit around Mars, the beaming prime minister was shown on global newscasts, hugging and congratulating officials at the mission control center.
Among the diaspora, moreover, his supporters are not limited to Hindus. Organizers of the Madison Square Garden event invited a broad social, ethnic and religious cross-section of 400 immigrant groups, ranging from Jains to Zoroastrians, Tamils to Bohras, yoga foundations to diamond-merchant associations.
“I am a Christian, and my family always voted for Congress, but I have to say I have been very impressed with Mr. Modi’s performance during the first 100 days,” said Benoy Thomas, 49, director of a child-welfare organization in Silver Spring, Md. “He is pushing all the right buttons. I believe he will bring integrity back into public life and take India in the right direction.”