Modi US visit: Amnesty calls for human rights to be central in talks with Joe Biden

World leaders should hold each other to account rather than ‘sweep human rights issues in their respective nations under the rug’

Narendra Modi and Joe Biden must address grave human rights issues in both their nations, Amnesty International has said as India’s prime minister heads to the United States.

Under Modi, India has borne witness to “increasing violence against religious minorities, shrinking civil society space and criminalisation of dissent” as he presided over a “period of rapid deterioration of human rights protections,” the organisation said.

Modi’s first state visit comes almost two decades after the US revoked his visa over the 2002 riots in India’s Gujarat, where he was then the state’s chief minister.

Back then, the US cited concerns that Modi had done nothing to stop anti-Muslim violence that left more than 1,000 dead. While he was absolved of the charges by India’s Supreme Court and the US reinstated his visa, concerns around his alleged involvement remain in the wake of rising crimes against Muslims in India.

Amnesty also said Mr Biden’s presidential tenure was “concurrent to a devastating period of backsliding on reproductive rights” and a spike in “vitriolic anti-LGBT+ attacks at the state level”.

Calling on the leaders to address respective rights issues, Amnest’s top India official Aakar Patel said that “with the world watching, their [Mr Modi and Mr Biden’s] silence will be felt by the people in India and the US whose rights are most at risk of abuse”.

Amnesty said growing human rights concerns are not “fringe issues” and the Indian administration has “placed dangerous constraints on civil society”.

Mr Patel, Amnesty International India’s board chair, has asked the two leaders to hold each other to account rather than “sweep human rights issues in their respective nations under the rug”.

“While the red carpet has been rolled out for Prime Minister Modi, people in India continue to experience grave human rights abuses. India and the US are important partners and allies in various world forums, including the G20 and Quad,” he said in a statement.

In a rare interview, Modi told The Wall Street Journal that India celebrates diversity.

“For thousands of years, India has been the land where people of all faiths and beliefs have found the freedom to coexist peacefully and prosper,” he said. “You will find people of every faith in the world living in harmony in India.”

India has seen arbitrary arrests and detentions of academicians, journalists, lawyers, political opponents and peaceful protestors documented by Amnesty in Mr Modi’s near-decade-long regime. Rising attacks on minority communities, especially Muslims and less-privileged social castes like Dalits, have had an uptick as well.

Under his administration, financial and investigative agencies of the government were alleged to have been “weaponised to harass, silence, and criminalise independent critical voices”, Amnesty said on the day Mr Modi left for the US.

Amnesty cited action against media organisations such as the BBC and other prominent non-profits such as Greenpeace India, Oxfam India, Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), and the Centre for Policy Research, as well as its own India branch.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s recommendation for the fourth year, India should be added to a list of countries “perpetuating systemic and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion”.

Mr Biden should not ignore his own administration’s findings and must call on Mr Modi to end his government’s alleged abuse of laws to target civil society and free speech, officials at Amnesty said.

Domestically, the US president’s administration has the “critical authority” to support access to abortion which has seen a “devastating backslide” after June last year.

“President Biden has taken some executive action but has the power to do more, including to declare a national health emergency to protect abortion access in the United States,” Amnesty said.

Modi will meet Mr Biden at the Oval Office and address a joint meeting of Congress, followed by a lavish White House dinner.

He will also attend a state department lunch on Friday hosted by vice-president Kamala Harris and the US secretary of state Antony Blinken. Mr Modi will address members of the Indian diaspora before departing Washington.