While President Donald Trump arrives in India after his acquittal on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — having the dubious distinction of being only the third president in the US history to be impeached by the House — PM Modi is battling an uprising of millions of Indians demonstrating and protesting against a fundamentally discriminatory and religiously bigoted legislation, Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) passed by his Hindu-Nationalist government.
It is also for the first time that India’s most powerful Prime Minister has faced an unexpected real opposition, albeit outside the Parliament, from people of India including women protestors.
It is therefore critical that despite the bromance and the hoopla of this historic visit, we must not lose sight of the current political environment that has beleaguered the two embattled leaders of the world’s largest and the oldest democracies.
‘Namaste Trump’ or ‘Kem Chho Trump,’ brings a full circle to the ‘Howdy! Modi’ event that attracted nearly 50,000 Indian-Americans in Houston in September 2019, also attended by Trump. In return, Trump now has been promised ‘millions and millions of people’ to greet him and the First Lady, Melania Trump.
In many ways, Trump and Modi share several similarities. Both leaders derive their politics on arousing nationalism, majoritarianism and pursuing politics of fear and polarization.
Trump started his presidency announcing a travel ban or Muslim ban in 2017, leading up to restricting permanent immigration visas to six additional countries, mostly with Muslim majority. During his last address to the United Nations General assembly (UNGA), he spoke of the governments defending their “history, culture and heritage” in the name of national identity while justifying his own decision.
Similarly, Modi proclaimed that “[we] were nationalist, are nationalist and will remain nationalist” during his 2019 election rallies. His dictatorial and authoritarian politics with the abrogation of Article 370 despite consistent decline in terrorist violence has impacted the only Muslim-dominated state of India resulting in the longest-ever internet shut down by a democracy, loss of about 4.96 lakh jobs in four months, economic loss of nearly $2.4 billion, arbitrary detention of political leaders under J&K’s draconian Public Safety Act, and crippling the lives of nearly 8 million people.
Recognising Trump’s upcoming visit to India, four US Senators including influential Republican Lindsay Graham, in a bipartisan initiative have noted severe consequences of Modi government’s unilateral revocation of Article 370 and have urged the Indian government to restore normalcy in the state. Only time will tell whether Trump will carry his Senators’ message to his counterpart.
Further similarities include the two strongmen making deeply polarising statements, disparaging entire communities based on race or religion. Trump has called undocumented immigrants as “thugs” and “animals” or Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists despite multiple studies revealing that immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime.
Modi on the other hand has extolled his ability to ‘identify violent people by their clothes,’ and has in the past compared refugee camps that sheltered the victims (mostly Muslims) of Godhra pogrom in 2002 as “baby-making factories.”
Similarly, India’s Home Minister, the second most powerful leader, has labelled illegal immigrants as infiltrators, termites, and promised to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.
While Trump’s policies have defended the detention camps in the US, Modi has blatantly denied its existence in India despite being under construction, with the Ministry of Home Affairs issuing a model Detention Camp Manual in 2019.
Both the leaders’ penchant for nationalism touts their foreign policy as America First and India First.
However, it will be of much interest to find the first among equals during this trip.
The intersection of saffron-supremacy & white-supremacy
Even as Trump fans white nationalism, Modi caters to Hindu-nationalism, which I have argued elsewhere as establishing ‘Saffron-Supremacy’ instead – all of them being eerily dangerous to promote in a multicultural and pluralistic society grounded on the principles of egalitarianism, secularism and inclusivity.
In many ways, polarisation of communities has fuelled White-Supremacy and Saffron-Supremacy alike, relying on stoking ungrounded fears of existential crisis, for example, immigrants will invade America, or Muslims will outnumber Hindu population in India. None of which is evidence-based but rooted in polarisation of the “other.”
In a post 9/11 world, hate disguised as Islamophobia has been normalized to unite the far-right. The consequences of such polarity are far-reaching and gravely similar.
Based on the FBI’s annual report, US has witnessed a rise in violent hate crimes and threats with a significant increase in violence against Latinos and transgender people, with Jews and Jewish institutions being overwhelmingly targeted of religion-based hate crimes. Much of this is attributed to the hate speech and fear-mongering coming from the right wing of the Republican Party.
Indian-Americans have also increasingly reported victimisation. With unofficial statistics being potentially higher, in 2018 Sikhs were officially the third most targeted group of hate crime 4.3% (up from 1.5 percent in 2017), anti-Hindu hate crime remained at 1 percent, 18.6 percent were victims of anti-Islamic (Muslim) bias in 2017.
India has similarly witnessed rise in the communal rhetoric by extreme far-right members of the Hindu-nationalist government, resulting in violent campaigns of cow vigilantism and mob lynching that has led to the killing of at least 44 people including members of Dalit or Adivasi (indigenous) communities, with 82 percent of victims being Muslims.
Since 2014, Christian minority population has also faced increased persecution, ranking India at the 10th place in the list of countries where Christians suffer ‘extreme persecution’ according to Open Doors USA. Notably, it has moved up from rank 31 in the last 7 years.
Saffron Supremacy & the Emergence of Far-Right Wing Indian-Americans
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, of which PM Modi is one of the most illustrious members today. Considered a fascist paramilitary organisation, their core belief declares India as a Hindu Rashtra – a view of Hindu exceptionalism which is fundamentally contrary to India’s secular foundation.
The current political establishment has pendulated India between the two paradigms today, leaning dangerously closer to the notion of Hindu Rashtra, with the constitutional blunder in CAA and policy blunder in NRC and NPR as being distinct markers.
RSS has also systematically spread globally, with many Sangh-affiliated organizations have established their roots in the US — Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Sewa International USA, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation-USA, Hindu Students Council (HSC), and The Overseas Friends of the Bhartiya Janata Party — USA, to name a few.
A 54-page report, ‘Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A Report on Non-profit Groups’, released via sacw.net in 2014 calls into investigation on their funding apparatus. It further suggests ‘exploring possible legal culpability of U.S.-based Sangh groups and members in Sangh-led violent acts in South Asia, possible violations of 501(c)(3) (IRS non-profit) regulations and restrictions; and the involvement of other U.S.-based groups and individuals in supporting violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalist groups.’
Propagation of Hindutva-nationalism and Islamophobia is also evident within the Indian diaspora of the US, where calls for boycotting of Muslim owned businesses have propagated; Islamophobic and violent sloganeering made during Republic Day celebration gatherings held across the US.
Calls to rally support to reject Ms. Kshama Sawant’s Seattle City Council Resolution# 31926 that opposed the NRC and the CAA in India were issued on behalf of Seattle-based,
Sri Venkateswara Temple, a 501(c)(3) certified non-profit organization, potentially in violation of the IRS rules that regulate against becoming action organization, or influencing legislation … and participating in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.’
Indian American (Hindus) being a minority within the US landscape themselves, today have turned up against their own fellow minorities (Muslims), such is the impact of polarization.
Evidently though, the far-right leaning, radical Hindutva Saffron-Supremacist voices do not represent majority of the progressive Indians in the US. According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 64% of Indian-American voters were registered as Democrats (with 12 percent republicans and remaining not registered) and 84 percent of the same population having voted for a Democratic candidate in 2016 elections. It will be worth examining if Trump-Modi bonhomie will translate into electoral gains for Trump among the Indian-Americans in the 2020 US elections.
At this point, it is my hope that President Trump and PM Modi while having united the far-right will now do the right thing.
I implore them to recognize that the protest against CAA is not about the act of commission (i.e., to whom it is giving citizenship, in fact people applaud the government on this) but it is about the act of omission (i.e., the arbitrary and discriminatory exclusion of Muslims, Jews and Atheist from gaining fast-track citizenship).
I remind PM Modi of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950, which ensured citizenship to minorities, irrespective of religion. I press upon him to condemn police brutality against the citizens and meet the protestors to hear their voice, and immediately withdraw the ‘trilogy of disaster’ in CAA-NRC-NPR.
It is my desire to see propagation of religious tolerance, pluralism and recognize that in passing CAA, India stands in violation of her own Constitutional guarantees that promotes equality before the law, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which she is a signatory member.
As PM Modi has recently expressed, “India and USA share a common commitment to democracy and pluralism,” I remind him of the Gandhian philosophy, ‘Hindu & Muslims are the left and right eye of India,’ but today India is only looking at the world with one eye open and the other eye shut and bleeding. I hope that he will change that vision.
(The author is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University in New Jersey. He has written, among others, for HuffPost, Newslaundry, and published his research in international journals)