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The disquieting truth of Trump’s visit to India

The backdrop to President Donald Trump’s recent visit to India was eerily disquieting and strikingly dissonant — presidential pleasantries exchanged in almost a Shakespearean contrast to the religiously driven rioting just miles away. As both an Indian and an American, I have never been more heartbroken than I was to hear of President Trump’s endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies on “religious freedom.”

In India, the worst of history may be repeating itself. The first time was the 1947 partition — the largest mass migration in history. India and Pakistan were delivered by cesarean at the hands of the British, and the incision left 20 million displaced and over 1 million lives lost. This wound remains raw in the institutional memories of our families.

Recent events in India have led to tensions perhaps equally seething. 

In August, Prime Minister Modi revoked articles in India’s constitution that had provided autonomous status to the Muslim majority region of Jammu and Kashmir and that had given Kashmiris the right to legal self-determination and permanent residency. Done under the veil of economic development, this revocation was accompanied by well-documented internet and telecommunication blackoutsmass detentions and widespread beatings and extrajudicial killings, as well as the addition of nearly 40,000 Indian troops in what was already the world’s most militarized zone.  

The same month, the Indian government implemented a National Registry of Citizens in the northeastern state of Assam, effectively rendering two million people, mostly Muslims, as stateless.

The final insult came in December when India’s Parliament approved the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides undocumented migrants of certain religious minorities a pathway to citizenship but notably excludes Muslims.

Millions of Indians now fear they will be targeted for mass detention or deportation. In the history of modern India, this legislation has been the first to explicitly target a religious minority, a sea change in India’s standing as a secular democracy.  

What is perhaps equally abhorrent as this lack of regard for human rights and international law by the world’s largest democracy, is the global community’s anemic response — exemplified by the pomp and circumstance of Trump’s visit. 

In 2014, in the months following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States along with allied partners enacted crippling sanctions on Russia, limiting access to Western markets, enacting export embargoes and freezing assets of key personnel. 

In stark contrast, in the months following India’s effective annexation of Kashmir, Modi has continued to be received with international fanfare. In September, he joined Trump at a massive rally in Houston, Texas. The same week, Modi received a prestigious award from Bill Gates on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and announced joint initiatives in financial services at the Bloomberg Business Forum.

The U.S. Congress has opened public hearings on Kashmir, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights has harshly criticized India’s actions — yet, there has been no overt diplomatic or economic reprimand of India. While India is a trusted U.S. ally, I believe it runs counter to our own self-interest to maintain double standards around issues of international law, human rights and religious freedom. Clearly, much more can be done. 

Rather than offer public praise for Modi’s policies, the Trump administration should consider bold action, including the prospect of economic sanctions leveraging the $142 billion bilateral trade relationship, which would prove timely during a sluggish period for the Indian economy and which has support from a federal bipartisan foreign policy commission. 

On the private-sector side, foreign investors should temper their enthusiasm for India. What’s problematic is the complete disconnect between a country’s record on human rights and foreign direct investment. If Modi’s presence at the Bloomberg Forum was suggestive of anything, it was that there will be even further business ties with the U.S. corporate sector. The U.S.-India Business Council, a coalition of roughly 250 of the largest businesses operating in both the U.S. and India, has notably remained mum on the issue of Kashmir, Assam and assaults on religious freedom. How symbolically powerful would it be if council members reminded Modi that the business sector stands for international law and human rights. 

India is not only the world’s largest democracy but also the world’s youngest, most plural democracy, with 600 million people under the age of 25. I can’t help but think about 2050, as this generation comes of age, when India will be home to the world’s largest Muslim population, which now feels its home is in jeopardy. 

If India won’t honor the pluralism that comes with an inclusive, multicultural democracy, the U.S. and others should do more to safeguard these norms. The wounds of partition are only now healing, and it would be a grave mistake to reopen them. 

Dr. Akash Goel is a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell/NewYork Presbyterian Hospital and has been recognized by the U.N. and awarded a Cannes Lion for his work in human rights advocacy.

Tags Bloomberg Donald Trump Gujarati people India India Indian Hindus Jammu and Kashmir Kashmir Narendra Modi Narendra Modi

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