Should America condemn Modi’s India? Let the pertinent facts decide

060816 Modi pic
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked the U.S. for its commitment to encouraging democratic values around the world. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Manuel Balce Ceneta

Should America condemn Modi’s India? Let the pertinent facts decide

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Indias prime minister, Narendra Modi, is famous for his bear-hug embraces of world leaders he wants to court.

And so when Mr. Modi makes his first state visit to Washington on June 21-24, we should be looking to see who he hugs — and who hugs him back. The latter will be especially true when he makes his second address to a joint session of Congress on June 22. Congressional Democrats, in particular, face strong pressure from human rights organizations not to cozy up to Modi’s India.

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With 1.4 billion consumers, the world’s fastest-growing large economy, and a voracious appetite for foreign investment, India is being heavily courted by American businesses. India is also increasingly sought after as a security partner, despite its reluctance to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine.

But international democracy evaluations rate India poorly. Press freedom surveys rate India among the worst countries in the world. And most damning of all, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) he heads face chronic allegations that they violate the rights of India’s 200 million Muslims. That demographic makes up roughly 15% of the country’s population. Modi himself has repeatedly been accused of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which more than 1,000 people (mostly Muslims) lost their lives, although he has been absolved of responsibility by India’s Supreme Court.

Both President Biden’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and his ambassador to India have called out Modi’s Hindu-dominated government for its supposed anti-Muslim bias. In Congress, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) claims that unless the United States takes action to stop it, “There is going to be genocide of over 200 million Muslims in India.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent bipartisan agency created by Congress in 1998, considers India an “egregious violator of religious freedom” for its treatment of Muslims.

Those accusations are very serious, but are they true?

Democracy and press freedom evaluations are highly contentious, and their ratings are very much in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to the status of Muslims in India, we’re lucky to have high-quality, large-scale quality survey data. In 2019-2020, the Pew Research Center commissioned a nationally-representative survey of 29,999 Indian households, focusing on freedom of religion. Conducted in 17 languages with a response rate of 86%, it is the most comprehensive social survey ever conducted on religion in India.

What Pew found might shock you. It certainly shocked the experts. Pew discovered that 98% of India’s Muslims say they are free to practice their religion in India. The remaining 2% said they were “not too free” to practice their religion, with virtually no one answering “not at all free”. Undermining the politicized narratives of anti-India activists, actual Muslims in India report experiencing very low levels of discrimination. Offered an up/down question to describe the levels of discrimination they face, 24% say there is “a lot of discrimination” against Muslims, compared to 72% who say “not a lot” (with the remaining 4% answering “Don’t know”).

To put these figures in perspective, when Pew put the exact same question to Americans, 80% of African-Americans, 46% of Hispanic Americans, and 42% of Asian Americans said they face “a lot of discrimination” in the U.S. If there is any discrimination against Muslims in India, it appears to be far less severe than that faced by all major minorities in America.

As a final check, Indian Muslims were asked if they were “proud to be Indian.” Nearly everyone said yes: 95% were very proud and 4% were somewhat proud. These do not sound like the statistics of a country on the verge of a Muslim genocide.

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The U.S. has a long history of foreign political groups fighting their overseas battles in the arena of American public opinion. The very first foreigner to address a joint session of Congress was the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth in 1852, and the last was Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The politicking hasn’t let up since. If Americans are to avoid becoming dupes in other people’s politics, it has to turn to facts in assessing the actions of foreign governments, not feelings; data, not drama.

The many scare stories we hear coming out of India are, for the most part, problems cherry-picked from among a vast population living in a country afflicted by hostile neighbors, international terrorism, and serious poverty. Of course, Indian democracy faces challenges, but they mostly come down to poor resourcing, not malicious intent. If the U.S. is going to embrace any developing country, India should be at the front of the queue.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the executive director of the Indian Century Roundtable.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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