WASHINGTON - U.S. rights groups plan protests next week against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state visit to Washington over what they call India's deteriorating human rights record, even though experts do not expect Washington to be publicly critical of New Delhi.
The Indian American Muslim Council, Peace Action, Veterans for Peace and Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition plan to gather near the White House on June 22 when Modi is due to meet President Joe Biden.
Washington hopes for closer ties with the world's largest democracy, which it sees as a counterweight to China, but rights advocates worry that geopolitics will overshadow human rights issues. The United States has said its human rights concerns related to India include the Indian government's targeting of religious minorities, dissidents and journalists.
The protesting groups prepared flyers that said "Modi Not Welcome" and "Save India from Hindu Supremacy."
Another event is planned in New York featuring a show titled "Howdy Democracy," a play on the name of the 2019 "Howdy Modi!" rally in Texas featuring the Indian prime minister and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have invited policy makers, journalists and analysts next week to a screening in Washington of a BBC documentary on Modi that questioned his leadership during the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots.
In a letter to Biden, Human Rights Watch's Asia Division director Elaine Pearson urged the White House to raise concerns, both publicly and privately, about human rights in India during Modi's visit.
"We strongly urge you to use your meetings with Prime Minister Modi to urge Modi to move his government and his party in a different direction," she said in the letter shared with Reuters.
All of this is unlikely to change the Biden-Modi discussions, said analysts.
"My guess is that human rights will not be much of a focus of the conversation," said Donald Camp, a former State Department official and part of Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Camp said that for the Modi trip to be seen as successful on both sides, there would be a reluctance from Washington to raise human rights issues.
The U.S. State Department has said it regularly raises human rights concerns with Indian officials and respects the free speech rights of U.S. residents to demonstrate against Modi.
A spokesperson for India's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
CIVIL LIBERTY CONCERNS
Since Modi took office in 2014, India has slid from 140th in the World Press Freedom Index, to 161st this year, its lowest ever, while also topping the list for the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for five consecutive years.
Advocacy groups have also raised concerns over alleged human rights abuses under Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
They point to a 2019 citizenship law that the U.N. human rights office described as "fundamentally discriminatory" by excluding Muslim migrants; anti-conversion legislation that challenged the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief; and the revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir's special status in 2019.
There has also been demolition of properties owned by Muslims in the name of removing illegal construction; and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when BJP was in power in that state.
The Indian government dismisses the criticism, saying its policies are aimed at the welfare of all communities and that it enforces the law equally. Modi remains India's most popular leader and is widely expected to remain in office after next year's elections.
The administration of then-President George W. Bush denied Modi a visa in 2005 under a 1998 U.S. law barring entry to foreigners who have committed "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." In 2002, when Modi had just become Gujarat's chief minister, at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in sectarian riots.
Modi denied wrongdoing. An investigation ordered by India's supreme court found no evidence to prosecute him. When he became prime minister, the U.S. ban was lifted.
Under Biden, Washington has raised some muted concern, including by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and by the State Department in its 2023 reports on human rights and religious freedom.
"The China factor is certainly a prime reason why the U.S. treats rights and democracy issues in India with kid gloves, but it goes further than that," said Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
"The U.S. views India as an important long-term partner."
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; additional reporting by Simon Lewis and Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Don Durfee, Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)