indian prime minister Narendra Modi, on a visit to the United States this week that included meetings with Elon Musk and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, among others, will meet President Joe Biden on Thursday and will be invited to a state dinner in the evening. The trip is aimed at cementing a future India-US partnership against China, among other goals.
Yet while Modi’s visit has been touted as the blossoming of a friendship between two of the world’s largest democracies, optimistic optics have clouded a darker story: the increasingly grim fate of Indian political prisoners, including many known to non-governmental organizations and the Western media. establishments, under the right-wing Modi government.
A long list of members of Indian civil society are currently languishing in the country’s prisons.
Perhaps the most emblematic example is Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human rights activist and president of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. Parvez, 45, has for years been at the forefront of documenting human rights violations in Kashmir, including torture, extrajudicial arrests and mass killings, during a long-running insurgency in the territory. He was arrested in November 2021 amid a broader crackdown by the Indian government and has been in prison ever since. His arrest did not go entirely unnoticed: Time magazine in 2022 named Parvez to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, calling him a “modern David who gave a voice to families who lost their children to enforced disappearances, allegedly for the Indian state.
Despite their prominent status, the fate of Parvez and others like him has not figured much in celebratory pronouncements on the US-India relationship. Although the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently criticized his detention and called for his release, no major US human rights organization has issued a statement on Parvez at the time of Modi’s high-profile visit. To united states. That silence has had a chilling effect with repercussions far beyond his own fate.
“If we can’t even get them to talk about their case, who’s going to talk about a 16-year-old with no prison connections?”
“Over the last 20 years, Khurram has become the face of human rights work in Kashmir, as well as the most outgoing and outgoing person when it comes to making connections with the international community. He was someone that others assumed had built-in protections because of his notoriety,” said Imraan Mir, co-founder of the Kashmir Law and Justice Project. “Their arrest of him has effectively spelled the end of any human rights work in Kashmir. Famous people from all over the world know Khurram and call him his friend. If we can’t even get them to talk about his case, who’s going to talk about a 16-year-old with no prison connections?
Parvez is just one of many prominent Indian activists and journalists who have disappeared in prison in recent years under the Modi government. Some of the other famous names include Fahad Shah, a contributing writer for the left-wing American magazine The Nation; Irfan Mehraj, writer for Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera; activists Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid; and countless others who have had the misfortune to clash with Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party.
India’s prisons have begun to fill up with many of its own highly educated citizens, even as the BJP’s popularity continues to grow, partly through eye-catching infrastructure and economic projects planned for completion across the country.
Modi is widely hopes to win in elections scheduled for next year. The Indian leader, whose star has risen in the United States years after he was banned from the country for his alleged involvement in serious human rights abuses, is also scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday. .
A perceived democratic rollback in India under his rule has led several progressive US politicians to announce a boycott of the speech, including members of the so-called Squad: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
“A joint speech is among the most prestigious invitations and honors that the United States Congress can extend. We should not do this to people with deeply troubling human rights records, particularly people our own State Department has concluded are involved in systematic human rights abuses of religious minorities and caste-oppressed communities,” he said. Ocasio-Cortez in a statement, calling on colleagues who support “pluralism, tolerance and free speech” to join her and hold off on the speech.
Despite the boycott’s symbolic value, these members of Congress are clear outliers in the American establishment, which has shown minimal reservations about embracing Modi.
The strategic reasons for doing so, which include tapping into what is believed to be an important future market for Western companies and shoring up military cooperation to contain China in the event of conflict, appear compelling on the surface. However, letting human rights fall completely by the wayside risks making a mockery of the oft-repeated claim that India and the US are united by values rather than mere interests.
“Western countries have been very reluctant to criticize India for its human rights record.”
“Anyone who criticizes the government, whether they are human rights defenders, journalists or climate change activists, is being harassed or, at worst, detained and charged under the country’s sedition laws,” said Juliette Rousselot, Program Officer for Western and South Asia. for the International Federation for Human Rights. “The Khurram case is emblematic of the systematic gagging of civic space in India by the Indian authorities. Kashmiris bear the brunt of that policy, but he is far from the only victim. Unfortunately, his case has not received as much attention as we would like for various reasons. But generally speaking, it’s because Western countries have been very reluctant to criticize India for its human rights record.”
Despite calls to prioritize human rights issues in the context of the US-India bilateral relationship, there is little indication that the fate of India’s political prisoners figured in discussions between the two leaders, they seemed more focused on securing lucrative profits. arms deals for the future. In that context, many have come to see human rights—and the fate of activists like Parvez, among others—as merely a distraction from larger issues.
“People in political circles have the idea that if they talk about human rights issues, Indians will get very angry,” said Mir, Kashmir’s legal advocate. “So they don’t want to ruffle feathers.”