When President Obama hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House later this month, the two leaders plan to discuss economic growth and security cooperation. Although these issues are necessary components of U.S. foreign policy, they are not sufficient to address profound human rights challenges in India.
In 2002, while Modi served as Chief Minister of Gujarat, over a thousand Muslims were massacred in retaliation for the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims, who burned to death when a train they were traveling in caught fire. Muslims were blamed for the tragedy and subjected to a brutal backlash. Modi is still dogged by allegations that his government facilitated the violence and that he subsequently capitalized on anti-Muslim sentiment to win state elections. At the time, he justified the violence by saying, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
Far from being an aberration, the Gujarat pogroms occurred nearly two decades after 3,000 Sikhs were systematically massacred on the streets of New Delhi. The 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms were triggered by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikhs, who sought to avenge the loss of thousands of civilian lives when Gandhi ordered India’s Army to crush a regional insurgency that she had cynically promoted in order to discredit a peaceful movement for federalism initiated by Sikhs in Punjab.
Although Mrs. Gandhi’s assassins were promptly executed, the government officials who organized the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms subsequently capitalized on anti-Sikh sentiment to win national elections by record margins. Their leader, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, justified the violence by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.”
To this day, the architects of the anti-Sikh pogroms have evaded prosecution, and survivors are repeatedly told to forget the past.
In the broad context of human rights, there is one perceptible cultural difference between India and America that might explain why India does nothing when thousands of its own citizens are massacred with government patronage.
The difference lies in the basic attitudes that citizens in both countries have toward injustice:
For most Americans, individual rights and personal freedom are paramount. Although America continues to grapple with income inequality and racial prejudice, there is a widely-shared belief in the United States that the arc of the moral universe should bend toward justice. (A Sikh American who lost a friend to a hate crime once expressed the point to me this way: “In America, when six Sikhs were killed at Oak Creek, the government here lowered its flags and complete strangers mourned with us. When 3,000 Sikhs were killed in New Delhi, the government there supplied the murder weapons and neighbors turned against us.”)
For most Indians, the sovereignty of the individual is trumped by tradition and the deadweight of determinism. If suffering is not considered a fact of life, it is seen as deserved.
Millions of Indians are denied social and economic mobility because of the caste system—organized superstitions that relegate people to lives of privilege or poverty based on the degree to which they led virtuous past lives. Individual effort in this life is considered irrelevant.
Millions of female fetuses in India are preemptively aborted every year because their parents defer to the dowry system, an ancient practice that requires a girl’s parents to transfer money and assets to her in-laws when she is married off. To avoid the expense of dowry, many Indians choose to abort their female fetuses instead.
Millions of Indian women are treated as second-class citizens. Indian women who survive rape and domestic violence are often disowned by their families and shunned by society because of an ancient belief that a woman’s worth depends entirely on her virginity if she is unmarried, and her capacity to serve her husband and in-laws after marriage—even if they are abusive.
To be fair, there are millions of Indians who have rejected these traditions and articulated an alternative vision of India with laws that prioritize the dignity of every individual and leaders with the courage to enforce them. Nevertheless, the persistence of mass state violence, caste discrimination, and sex discrimination in contemporary India depends entirely on the willingness of a critical mass of Indians to accept—or even justify—what most Americans would instinctively regard as injustice.
In an interdependent world, to which India contributes one-sixth of humanity, the Obama administration cannot afford to ignore human rights in its engagement with India. Without a fundamental shift in the way Indians react to injustice, no amount of money or weaponry from the United States can save India from itself.
Singh is director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh American civil rights organization in the United States.