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Putting Corporate Politics Over Principles in India

America's intentional blind spot makes its rhetoric about global human rights look like self-serving hypocrisy.

Words: Basav Sen
Pictures: Debashis RC Biswas

The world’s second most populous country, and largest formally democratic nation, is on the verge of full-blown authoritarianism.

In just the last few months, the Government of India banned a BBC documentary exposing how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was complicit in covering up a pogrom against Muslims in 2002, when he held the highest elected office in the State of Gujarat. Government censors required online platforms to block access to the documentary in India, and tax authorities raided the BBC office in Delhi on the pretext of investigating tax violations. Students who planned to show the documentary publicly in defiance of the ban were arrested in a militarized police raid.

More recently, the Government of India imposed a blanket mobile service shutdown in the State of Punjab, purportedly to help authorities arrest one person. Evidently, the authorities used the shutdown as a cover for mass arrests, restrictions on the freedom of assembly, and suspension of the social media accounts of journalists.

This isn’t an isolated instance of a blanket internet shutdown in India either. Internet shutdowns are a tool used by the Indian government with disturbing frequency, earning the country the dubious distinction of being the “internet shutdown capital of the world.”

Currently, Rahul Gandhi, India’s leading opposition politician, is facing a two-year prison term for alleged criminal defamation, on legally questionable grounds. He has been expelled from Parliament and is likely to be unable to contest Parliamentary elections in 2024. The Modi government is clearly trying to prevent a major political opponent from being able to challenge its rule.

Former US President Donald Trump famously called for his chief political rival to be locked up. Modi is putting that into practice.

Alarm Bells Everywhere

Organizations that pay attention to human rights worldwide are deeply concerned about this ongoing repressive turn in Indian politics, especially since the Modi government first came to power in 2014.

In its 2021 report on India, Amnesty International painted a grim picture of the government using “repressive laws to silence critics,” and of human rights defenders facing “intimidation and harassment.”

Human Rights Watch is equally damning in its assessment, criticizing the government’s use of “fabricated counterterrorism and hate speech laws” to silence dissent, “laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims,” and “police failure to act against government supporters who commit violence” providing cover to far-right Hindu nationalists to “target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity.”

Genocide Watch observes that the ruling BJP party “has made Islamophobia a state-manufactured ideology,” and that Indian security forces “regularly arrest, beat, torture, and kill Muslim citizens.” It rates India as a country at the most concerning “Emergency” level in its three-level alert system.

Even the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a US government commission, regards India as a Country of Particular Concern, and notes that freedom of religion in India is “taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities.”

Alarm bells are ringing everywhere with regard to the authoritarian horror unfolding in the world’s second-most populous country. Except in the US State Department and the White House.

Software and Strategy

In the fall of 2021, when Indian Prime Minister Modi visited the United States, I wrote an article attributing US support for the Modi government to a combination of aligning with the interests of US multinational corporations who want to do business in India, and to the geopolitical imperatives of the US. foreign policy establishment, especially with regard to containing China. I based it on compelling, but indirect, evidence.

With regard to India, the US agenda appears to be to promote economic growth and prosperity for large US corporations, at the expense of democracy.

At a press briefing on March 21 this year, a State Department spokesperson proved me right. The spokesperson bragged about how the US Consulate General opened a new facility in Hyderabad, a major technology industry hub in India, a move that “brings our government closer to US companies that have invested billions of dollars in India’s tech, defense, aerospace, and pharmaceutical sectors.” He went on to name how five of these companies – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Meta – “host their largest presence outside the United States in Hyderabad.”

He mentioned regular joint exercises involving the US military and India’s Eastern Naval Command, and made reference to the “US-India Strategic Partnership” and the “growing bilateral relationship” between the countries.

Just the previous day, at a briefing on the State Department’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, there was a media question about the State Department’s response to human rights abuses in India. A State Department official responded with an extremely vague, non-specific answer about how the “US and India regularly consult at the highest levels on democracy and human rights issues,” and how the US has urged and “will continue to strongly urge India to uphold its human rights obligations and commitments.”

Preposterously, the official said “we encourage the Government of India to consult with” Indian civil society. This is a government known for charging dissidents with sedition, sometimes using fabricated evidence. It has used horrific violence against peaceful protesters and has stripped sections of the population, notably Muslims, of their citizenship and held them in concentration camps.

As a further confirmation of the policy of Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement that the US government is pursuing with regard to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was featured as a speaker at the US-sponsored “Summit for Democracy,” on a plenary panel on the subject of “Democracy Delivering Economic Growth and Shared Prosperity.” His co-panelists included at least two other highly controversial and divisive figures, Prime Ministers Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

To summarize: the US approach to impending genocide in India is to politely ask the government not to start a genocide, while actively pursuing deeper economic, strategic, and military cooperation with the same government.

Sometimes, I hate to be proven right.

Protests and Uncomfortable Questions

There is speculation that Modi may visit the US in June. If that’s true, it will provide a great opportunity to force the issue of the Government of India’s egregious human rights violations, and US acquiescence in India’s march to authoritarianism, onto the national stage. Loud protests against Modi’s visit in New York (where he’ll reportedly go first), and especially in Washington, DC would force the Biden administration to confront uncomfortable questions about its support for this dangerous regime.

For obvious reasons, the protests need to be led by those of us who are of South Asian descent. But a large turnout by the broader progressive community in the US will be key to driving home the message to President Biden and the State Department that significant sections of the US public are watching, and are justifiably angry about the cynical decision by the US government to side with a murderous government ruling over a country of 1.4 billion people for the sake of corporate profit and narrowly defined strategic advantage.

Basav Sen

Basav Sen joined the Institute for Policy Studies as the Climate Justice Project Director in February 2017. His work focuses on climate solutions at the national, state, and local level that address racial, economic, gender and other forms of inequality. He has authored numerous research reports and articles on energy and transportation justice. Prior to joining IPS, Basav worked for about 11 years as a strategic corporate campaign researcher at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). He has also had experience as a campaigner against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

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