‘Next time, even bigger’: Behind the protests against Modi in the US

But did Indian media find space for them?

WrittenBy:Sumedha Mittal
Date:
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On June 22, prime minister Narendra Modi stood on the south lawn of the White House, addressing a crowd of Indian-Americans. Today, he said, “for the first time, the doors of the White House have been opened for Indian-Americans in such large numbers.”

The crowd cheered and applauded. 

But just a few km away, at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington, DC, another group of Indian-Americans had congregated for something very different – protesting against US president Joe Biden’s decision to invite Narendra Modi for a state dinner and joint Congressional address. 

The protests, which also took place in New York City, were organised by the Coalition for Reclaiming Democracy in India, a group of civil rights and interfaith organisations representing Indian-American Hindus, Muslims, Chritstians, Dalits and allies. They were intended to spotlight concerns about Modi’s India: the persecution of religious minorities and marginalised communities, the undermining of democratic institutions, and the BJP’s Hindu supremacist ideology. 

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Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer at the protest, said it was a “terrible mistake” for the US to have invited Modi for a state dinner and to address a joint session of Congress. 

“At a time when human rights abuses are intensifying in India, it was the time for and the responsibility of the US government to hold him accountable, not to celebrate him,” he told Newslaundry

A rally had also taken place on June 21 at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York, just five minutes from where Modi participated in International Yoga Day celebrations that day. 

Ajit Sahi, advocacy director at the Indian American Muslim Council, and others said they began planning the protests a month before Modi arrived.

“As soon as we heard the news, we had all started talking about it. Mr Modi has never visited the US without protests. They had always happened. This time we started planning a month in advance,” said Sahi. The previous protest had taken place outside the venue of the Howdy Modi event in Houston in 2019. 

Ria Chakrabarty, policy director at Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based non profit human rights advocacy group that is also part of the coalition, said they “worked with a diverse group of organisations and speakers who depict different communities that have been directly impacted by the rise of Hindu nationalism”.

An organiser of the protest told Newslaundry, on condition of anonymity, “We are not professional protesters. For many of us, this is not our day job. But this comes from a place of growing concern and anxiety on what is happening to our fellow Muslims in India. Over a decade ago, when I moved to the US, I had never thought I would engage in the politics of my country in such an explicit way. But this is where we are – and it is unfortunate.”

There were other protests too. On June 20, 75 Democrats wrote a letter to Biden urging him to raise human rights issues with Modi. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez boycotted Modi’s speech at the US Congress. The Committee to Protect Journalists took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post on declining press freedom in India.

Newslaundry reported in detail on how the media in the United States viewed Modi’s visit. Reports spotlighted democracy concerns in India, “shared concerns” over China, and Biden pushing aside “concerns over human rights”.

This was corroborated by Chakrabarty. “Every major outlet in the US who talked about Modi also talked about human rights and democracy violations in India,” she said. In one instance, CBS had compared India under Modi to “Saudi Arabia and Egypt”. 

“Just look at the tone,” Chakrabarty said. “Modi was being compared to Mohd Bin Salman.”

But what was coverage like in India?

Newslaundry had reported on the top English newspapers striking a balance in its reportage on Modi’s visit to the US. Most front pages included former president Barack Obama’s comment that India may “pull apart” if the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are not upheld. 

However, we didn’t see reports on the protests in New York and Washington, DC in the Hindu, Times of India or Indian Express between June 21 and June 24. Nor did we see reports on lawmakers boycotting Modi’s speech or writing a letter of protest about his visit. 

As for our television brethren, their coverage of Modi’s trip to the US is best encapsulated by this episode of Newsance.

Sethi said while the US media “asked difficult questions about why Modi was being celebrated”, Indian counterparts have “shown time and again they are but an extension of Modi and the BJP”.

“This is further evidence that journalists and their lives are threatened in India,” he said.

Sahi pointed out that sections of the Indian media had alleged a “toolkit gang” was behind the protest. “How can you write such a thing?” Sahi said. “You’re a news organisation and talking like the Bajrang Dal.”

Sethi called it “nonsense”. “Protesters came from all walks of life and different regions across India, only to oppose Modi, the BJP and their Hindutva ideology,” he said. “Their activism made it into all media outlets across the world and that terrifies the Modi government, which is why they insist that the legacy media in India continue to censor the truth.”

Sahi said Modi “might spin his US visit as a success story”, but the world can now see “cracks and fissures”. “Opposition to Modi is increasing in the US,” he said. “Hundreds of people turned up for the protests. And we anticipate that the next time he visits the US, he will be met with even bigger protests.”

A participant in the protest said they turned up because it was a chance to show “fellow citizens in India that their brothers and sisters in the US will not let them down”. “This is what was truly driving all of us,” they said. “And the establishment was not able to ignore us.”

An anonymous organiser added, “We have a general election coming up in India next year. So, this was the right time to walk the talk, rather than simply staying on the sidelines.”

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