White House Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby defended President Joe Biden’s decision to invite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington this month, celebrating India as a “vibrant democracy” worthy of a “deepening” partnership with America.
Modi is expected to arrive in Washington, DC, on June 22 for a visit that will include a White House state dinner – the highest honor for foreign heads of state – and a potential address to a joint session of Congress.
“The U.S. really views that this is in our strategic interest to support India’s rise as a global power,” an unnamed Biden administration official told reporters in February.
The Biden administration has attempted to strengthen its relationship with India due to growing animosity between India and China – and India’s potential role in both curbing Chinese communist belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region and in replacing China as a manufacturing power. Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has actively courted multinational corporations to move out of China and into India, a campaign that witnessed significant success in light of China’s brutal coronavirus lockdowns, which greatly hindered its manufacturing ability. India has also experienced regular military combat against China on their mutual border since June 2020, when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers attempted to establish a presence in Indian territory, prompting a battle fought with sticks and barbed wire that resulted in twice as many Chinese as Indian soldiers dead.
Complicating the potential elevation of U.S.-India ties is the growing list of human rights violations permitted – and some say encouraged – by the Hindu nationalist Modi government, particularly against Christians and Muslims. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) actively promotes Hindu nationalism, the idea that Hinduism defines Indian identity, and thus fuels discrimination against Indian Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and those of other religions.
“Since 2014 when the BJP Party, Prime Minister Modi’s party, took over, there’s been a 300 percent jump in reported attacks on Christians and Christian churches,” David Curry, the president and CEO of Global Christian Relief, told Breitbart News in May. “It’s just been this massive escalation. That’s because he has a nationalistic agenda which is, in very simple terms, suggesting that Christians aren’t real Indians because you have to be Hindu to be a real Indian citizen.”
The State Department’s Religious Freedom Report for 2022, published last month, detailed a wide variety of human rights abuses against non-Hindus in India, including attacks by both police and Hindu mobs.
The latest eruption of violence in India began last month in northern Manipur, a region split between the majority Hindu Meitei tribe and dozens of smaller, majority Christian tribes. Meitei militants attacking tribal, plurality Kuki communities resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of people and ongoing arson attacks on Christian neighborhoods.
Kirby, the White House spokesman, was asked why Modi received a state dinner honor in the context of violence in India and if the Biden administration was “at all concerned about the health of democracy in India.”
“India is a strong partner on very, very many levels with the United States. You saw that, in Shangri-La, Secretary Austin announced some additional defense cooperation now that we’re going to pursue with India,” Kirby replied. “Of course, there’s an awful lot of economic trade between our two countries. … There’s — there’s innumerable reasons why India certainly matters not just bilaterally between the two of our nations, but multilaterally on very many levels.”
Kirby added that Biden seeks to use Modi’s visit to “talk about all those issues and to advance and deepen that partnership and that friendship.”
On the subject of freedom in India, Kirby insisted that the country was a “vibrant democracy” but that Biden would be “expressing concerns” about the direction of the country.
“Any — anybody that, you know, happens to go to New Delhi can see that for themselves. And certainly, I would expect that the strength and health of democratic institutions will be part of the discussion,” Kirby said. “And, look, we never shy away — and you can do that with friends; you’re supposed to do that with friends — you never shy away from expressing concerns that we might have with anyone around the world.”
Biden and Modi last met in Hiroshima, Japan, during last month’s G7 summit. Their encounter reportedly included friendly ribbing from Biden that Modi was “too popular” in America.
“I should take your autograph. You are causing me a real problem. Next month we have a dinner for you in Washington. Everyone in the whole country wants to come. I have run out of tickets,” Biden joked, according to the Times of India. “Do you think I am kidding? Ask my team. I am getting phone calls from people I have never heard of before. Everyone from movie stars to relatives. You are too popular.”
The Biden administration issued a travel alert advising Americans to stay out of Manipur “due to inter community protests and violence,” but has otherwise offered little meaningful comment on the situation. Violence erupted in response to the Meitei tribe, the majority Hindu group, asking the Modi government for “scheduled tribe” status, which would grant the Meiteis government privileges over some land and social programs. Thousands of members of other tribes protested in May urging the government not to grant that designation on the grounds that the Meitei wield most of the political power in Manipur already and other tribes feared losing their lands and businesses. The wave of burnings of Christian homes and businesses in response to the protest, presumably by infuriated Meiteis, resulted in the displacement of at least 37,000 people and ongoing waves of violence. Some estimates suggest as many as 65,000 people have lost their homes.
Members of the Kuki community, which is majority Christian, blamed the Modi government in late May for “supporting” attacks on Christians.
“We, the peace-loving Kuki Zo tribe were forced to protect our lives when we were attacked by the armed Meitei mob, who were tacitly supported by the state government machinery,” a joint statement published Sunday from the United People’s Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) reads.
Modi deployed Union Home Minister Amit Shah to Manipur last week for peace talks, which resulted in an increased military presence in the region but has not stopped the violence. On Monday, church officials confirmed waves of attacks on Manipur churches, convents, and boarding schools by “suspected outlaws,” according to UCA News.
“We were informed that St. Joseph Church, its presbytery, and a school boarding attached to the parish were set on fire and the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) convent in the parish is currently under the control of outlaws whose identity is not yet established,” a senior diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of Imphal told UCA News on Tuesday.
Unspecified “insurgents” were also behind the killing of a border patrol soldier on Monday night, part of the force deployed to restore peace in the region.
“One BSF jawan [troop] sustained fatal injuries while two Assam Rifles personnel sustained gunshot wounds (GSW) in general area Serou,” the Spear Corps of the Indian Army said in a statement.
As the violence erupted in Manipur last month, Modi published a statement celebrating the “diversity” of northern India.
“India is home to many cultures, cuisines, customs and lifestyles, where people belonging to different communities, practising different faiths, speaking different languages, observing different rituals not only coexist but also celebrate each other’s diverse way of life,” Modi wrote to a resident of northern Assam. “The natural and instinctive love of Indians for diversity is the nation’s real strength and has kept it united through centuries.”