Suchitra Vijayan is a lawyer and executive director of the Polis Project. Arjun Singh Sethi is a human rights lawyer, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and editor of “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out.”
On Monday, an Indian minister announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is planning to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi an award this month for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), a sanitation and toilet access initiative across India.
While public health is undoubtedly a priority in India and around the world, such an honor would come as his Hindu nationalist party has incited violence against minorities, silenced dissent and curtailed freedom of expression. In light of Modi’s record, including promoting repressive policies in the past month in Kashmir and the northeastern state of Assam, he should not be given the award.
Since Aug. 5, India has imposed an unprecedented communication blockade on Kashmir. Landlines, mobile phones and the Internet have been suspended. Many Kashmiris remain cut off from their families, and a strict curfew is still in place in many areas. In the days leading up to the blockade, 38,000 troops were moved into the Kashmir Valley, putting the total troop count at more than 500,000 in what was already one of the world’s most militarized regions.
The reports that have emerged from Kashmir since the blackout are frightening. Thousands of Kashmiris, including human rights advocates, elected officials and even young students, have reportedly been arrested in raids. The local prisons are full, according to a local magistrate, and many detainees have been flown out of the region. Family members wait in anguish, fearing that their loved ones may be forcibly disappeared, as an estimated 8,000 Kashmiris were before them. There have been reports of torture and police violence. Compounding this is a humanitarian crisis, as patients in Kashmir can’t access medicine and life-saving treatment.
At the same time, Modi is also pursuing an exclusionary strategy in Assam. On Aug. 31, the government published a list that excluded about 1.9 million people who it claims don’t have the appropriate documents to prove their citizenship. Many are Muslims, women and children from low-income and impoverished backgrounds. Those excluded from the list have 120 days to appeal and prove their citizenship, and if they fail, could be detained or deported.
The human tragedies in Kashmir and Assam are consistent with Modi’s human rights record dating back to his time as the chief minister of Gujarat, when Hindu mobs across the state slaughtered 2,000 Muslims, destroyed and looted their homes and property and displaced tens of thousands. Modi failed to protect those who were attacked — and reports suggest that he might have even been complicit. This year, Nishrin Jafri Hussain — the daughter of Ehsan Jafri, who was burned alive during riots — tellingly wrote that “fighting for justice and human rights in India is a long and lonely battle,” a sentiment echoed by other survivors. As a result of the violence, the U.S. government denied Modi a visa in 2005, a ban that remained in place until 2014. As of 2014, Modi was the only person ever to be banned from the United States under the International Religious Freedom Act.
When Modi was elected, many chose to overlook his murky past — but India’s vulnerable could not. He has used both state power and the bully pulpit to further his ethnonationalist agenda. Under his leadership the country has witnessed a spike in hate crimes and mob violence, particularly against Muslims and Dalits. Rarely are the perpetrators held accountable. Last summer, a minister in Modi’s cabinet even celebrated eight men who had been convicted of lynching a Muslim. Modi himself rarely publicly mentions the hate and violence surging across India.
Since his reelection, Modi has also implemented laws and amendments that erode human rights protections. This summer, his government passed a bill that would enable the state to unilaterally declare an individual a terrorist without due process and crippled the citizens’ right to free information. Activists, scholars and human rights defenders remain in prison without bail under a variety of far-fetched charges and overreaching laws, including most recently for allegedly conspiring to “attack the Prime Minister.”
This is the leader the Gates Foundation has apparently chosen to honor.
Civil society, including philanthropy, should help build communities rooted in the interconnected values of dignity, decency and equality. Modi’s sanitation campaign has no doubt benefited people, but how can access to a clean toilet outweigh the violence and persecution they may face in the rest of their lives? Giving Modi this award would legitimize his policies and embolden the ethnonationalist forces he has championed. If the Gates Foundation really wants to amplify sanitation efforts in India, it should give the award to community workers instead of a far-right nationalist.
From President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to President Trump in the United States to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, authoritarianism, ethnonationalism and fascism are on the rise worldwide. Civil society groups, including philanthropic foundations with global platforms, are integral to defeating these forces. The Gates Foundation claims on its homepage that “All lives have equal value.” Giving the award to Modi would betray that promise and everyone who has suffered under his rule.