Indian premier was joined by US President Trump and other US politicians despite widespread criticism over his policies on Kashmir.
An estimated 50,000 people attended “Howdy, Modi!” on Sunday, an event that brought Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, as thousands protested against the Indian leader’s policies in Kashmir and toward minorities in India.
The event, which was sold out since mid-August, was organised by the Texas India Forum, and saw the attendance out US President Donald Trump and several American politicians.
“The people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have been deprived of equal rights. The forces fanning terrorism and separatism were exploiting this situation,” Modi said during the event, defending his government against criticism of its policies in the Kashmir region.
Trump reportedly said that India never “had a better friend as President as President Donald Trump”.
US Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Raja Krishnamoorth were among the dozens of American lawmakers who turned up for “Howdy, Modi!”
Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential hopeful and lawmaker from Hawaii, was initially meant to attend the event but has pulled out due to campaign events. Gabbard, who has long enjoyed close ties with the Indian prime minister’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Namaste! I would like to extend a warm welcome to Prime Minister Modi on his latest visit to the US and I am sorry that I will not be able to join there in person due to previously scheduled presidential campaign events,” she said in a video message welcoming Modi to the US.
“I am really glad to see so many Indian Americans from all across our country as well as colleagues from Congress coming together there.”
Earlier this month, Modi took to Twitter to celebrate Trump’s attendance at the upcoming event. “The special gesture of President @realDonaldTrump to join us in Houston highlights the strength of the relationship and recognition of the contribution of the Indian community to American society and economy,” he wrote.
The White House has described the event as “a great opportunity to emphasise the strong ties between the people of the United States and India, to reaffirm the strategic partnership between the world's oldest and largest democracies and to discuss ways to deepen their energy and trade relationship”.
‘Go back Modi’
The fourth largest city in the US, Houston is home to an estimated 150,000 Indian Americans. With a massive crowd coming out to support Indian Prime Minister, thousands also showed up to protest against the event.
Angered by Modi’s increasingly ultra-nationalist policies—among them the ongoing crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir—a broad alliance of groups took to the streets to rally against Modi’s visit in Houston.
“Go back Modi,” some protesters chanted.
“Houston, we have a problem – it’s Modi,” one placard read. “Hinduism is real, Hindutva is fake,” another stated, referring to the Hindu nationalist ideology.
“We have one and only one goal: to expose the undemocratic, anti-people and anti-minorities agenda of Mr. Modi’s government and BJP party,” the Alliance for Justice and Accountability, an umbrella group involved in the rallies, said in a statement.
“We are horrified that our religion ... is being hijacked by extremists and nationalists who are lynching Muslims, trampling on democracy and law and order, and arresting if not murdering those who are speaking out,” Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, said in a statement provided to TRT World.
Around the country, it is estimated that there are two million Hindu Americans. Although Muslims make up around 200 million people in India, they are only an estimated 10 percent of the Indian American population.
Modi served as the Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 until 2014. In 2002, Modi saw controversy and widespread criticism when the deadly Gujarat riots erupted, an incident that saw three days of unrest described by critics as anti-Muslim pogroms.
Nonetheless, Modi was elected as prime minister in 2014 and again in May 2019. Since Trump came to power in January 2017, the US and India- already longtime allies- have seen cozying ties.
The US also sees India as a key ally in its effort to stem the tide of China’s growing influence in the region.
But recent months have seen the Indian government weather increasingly sharp criticism, chiefly over the government’s decision to revoke the special status for Jammu and Kashmir.
India has detained thousands of Kashmiris—among them hundreds politicians and activists—since revoking the region’s status, according to Human Rights Watch. The government has also restricted freedom of movement in the disputed region and banned public meetings.
“Anyone who has been detained in Kashmir without evidence of a crime should be immediately and unconditionally released,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement.
“It is essential for the authorities to allow every detainee access to lawyers and family members.”
Ajit Sahi, an Indian journalist and civil liberties activist who lives in Washington, DC, says the Indian government’s overreach in Kashmir has “created an opportunity” to raise awareness about the country’s human rights violations.
“The criticism from top politicians in the US, including from Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders, over India’s action in Kashmir has clearly startled Prime Minister Modi,” Sahi told TRT World.
“The Hindu nationalist lobby in America is quite strong and yet they were not able to stanch the wave of condemnation from several Members of Congress, including Senators, that has hit since Kashmir was put in a brutal and undemocratic lockdown on August 5.”
Sahi added: “All in all, Mr. Modi’s decision on Kashmir has provided an opportunity to his critics in America to scale up the attacks that highlight his divisive politics, and increasingly catch the eye of the politicians and the government, something that was not easy to access just two months ago.”
Even as ties deepen between the two countries, a growing number of American politicians have spoken out against Indian policies.
In late August, Muslim American congresswoman Ilhan Omar called ‘for an immediate restoration of communication; respect for human rights, democratic norms, and religious freedom; and de-escalation in Kashmir”.
A recent letter to the US ambassadors in India and Pakistan – signed by Omar and fellow lawmakers Raul M Grijalva, Andy Levin, James P McGovern, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal and Donald S Beyer – decried |allegations of forced disappearances, mass detentions, rape and sexual assault, and the targeted detention of political, economic and social leaders”.
“As you both know very well, there is also the risk that the relationship between India and Pakistan will continue to devolve as a result of this crisis,” the letter stated.
“This presents tremendous danger to global peace and a clear national security risk for the United States.”