President Obama with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 30, 2014. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

U.S. lawmakers have sharply criticized India’s human rights record ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on June 8.

In a speech in New Delhi on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking minority-party member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on India to "do better" to address issues of violence against women, government corruption, extrajudicial killings, human trafficking and outdated anti-conversion laws that are still in use. “A country must respond to these challenges,” he said.

Cardin’s speech followed a contentious hearing last week on Capitol Hill, when Cardin, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) and other senators pressed a State Department official on India's human rights issues, including human trafficking, its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation, rising intolerance, and a recent decision to bar investigators from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from traveling to India.

Corker said in that hearing that the United States had not been "brutally honest" with India, while Kaine spoke of the several dozen artists and writers who had returned their national awards as a protest against intolerance after a Muslim man was beaten by a mob allegedly for eating beef.

“Absolutely we are being candid," Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, countered at the time. “But there is a long way to go. It would be increasingly incumbent upon India to advance the rule of law to all aspects of the society.”


Sen. Benjamin L.Cardin speaks on the role of good governance in international relations at an event in New Delhi on June 1. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

In his speech in Delhi on Wednesday, Cardin criticized the continuing problem of human trafficking in India, citing the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report that documented Indian officials taking bribes from traffickers. He also noted that India tops a new Global Slavery Index report, which says that India has 18 million modern slaves, most of them working in forced labor. The U.S. State Department says India remains a source and destination for men, women and children who are subject to sex trafficking and forced or bonded labor in brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture and embroidery factories.

Cardin brushed aside a question on whether the senators' criticism would have a negative effect on Modi's visit to the United States next week.

"I don't think there's any society that's perfect," India's ambassador to the United States, Arun K. Singh, said Wednesday. "We don't believe that any society has the right to preach to another society. We're happy to discuss."

Modi will be the fifth Indian prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress, but the first who was once banned from traveling to the United States. In 2005, the United States denied Modi a visa because of concerns about his handling of deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in the state where he was chief minister.

Will Englund in Washington contributed to this report.

Read more:

India’s Modi is a ‘coward’ and a ‘psychopath’, says top Delhi politician

Campus activism gets out of hand and Indian university becomes hotbed of a raging debate

Indian government bars another activist from leaving the country