Human Rights and America’s Immigration Politics - Part 1
Rohith Krishna
The concern of Human Rights during PM Modi’s US visit

The Indian Prime Minister, Sri Narendra Modi’s visit to the US was much discussed for its significance of being his maiden three-day state visit, with at least three meetings with the US President, Joe Biden. The event also saw Sri Narendra Modi becoming the first Indian prime minister to address the US Congress twice[1] and the second world leader to do so, after Benjamin Netanyahu.[2] The visit also invited discussion on ‘Human Rights’ on multiple occasions. In the second part of this essay, we will try to put the repeated reference to Human Rights in perspective by relating it with the US’s larger political developments, particularly after the Cold War.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was quizzed on the Indian government’s presumed discrimination of religious minorities in India. An opportunity given to the Wall Street Journal’s White House correspondent was utilised to raise the issue of Human Rights against PM Modi. The question was not whether India has religious discrimination or not; rather, it was about what steps the government is willing to take to reverse its existing discriminatory practices against religious minorities. In other words, the precondition set to answer the question would be to accept an ongoing systematic right violation against Muslims and other minorities in India.[3] Therefore, while answering this tricky question, the Prime Minister had to say that he was ‘surprised’ by the question itself.

Days before the summit, two major international NGOs on Human Rights pressed the need to put human rights at the centre of Modi-Biden Summit.[4] It must be noted that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aren’t saying that India’s human rights situation should only be discussed. In the words of Amnesty's National director of government relations and advocacy Amanda Klasing, “As President Biden raises human rights threats in India, he must also be prepared to address the threats to human rights here in the US and look to examples from other countries, including India, where constitutional courts have extended human rights protections and legislatures have ratified key human rights treaties.” Similarly, Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton voiced, “The leaders of the world’s two largest democracies should be speaking frankly and directly about human rights issues in both countries.” Therefore, India shouldn't be illusioned that such NGOs or even America want to single out the human rights situation in India and discuss it. Rather, they urge India and the US to cross-check and review each other, thereby making the politics of human rights a norm and stronger in global geopolitics. By inviting more intensive, mobilised participation in the arena of human rights, it is presumed that more justice would be delivered. How far is this presumption true? Can human rights politics in its contemporary mobilised form invite threats to the right-protection demand itself? These are some of the questions that could be posed at this point.

The issue of Human Rights popped up even in the joint statement issued by India and the US. It said they would fulfil the people’s aspirations “grounded in respect for human rights, and shared principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law”.[5] President Joe Biden stayed away from giving any formal opinion on Human Rights in India, as a response to one of the questions, he merely responded by saying that “had a good discussion” with Prime Minister Modi about “democratic values”.[6] The White House had already announced that Biden would not ‘lecture’ PM Modi on human rights.[7] Hence, Biden restricted himself to subtle mentions of human rights in India in his formal interactions associated with PM Modi’s visit. However, there was a ‘display of pressure’ in the political atmosphere, among the democrats, and human rights activists. Around 75 democrats from the Senate and House of Representatives wrote a letter to Biden demanding him to raise ‘areas of concerns’ and discuss with PM Modi the human rights situation in India.

As Shekhar Gupta of The Print observed, Biden is in a limited position to say unfriendly things to his foreign counterpart. Heads of State do that through their proxies, who visibly maintain a distance from the government but are yet closer, popular to the world on the other hand. There was no better option than ex-President Obama for the same, under whom Biden served as Vice President. Just hours before the White House rolled out the red carpet to PM Modi, the message from Obama came via his interview with CNN. Even the interviewer’s question posed to Obama presupposed that India is an ‘illiberal democracy’ (which is a step short of becoming an autocracy). In his response, the ex-president pressed the need for discussing the ‘concerns about Indian democracy’ in diplomatic dialogues, and claimed that if the protection of ethnic minorities in India is at stake, “then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart”.[8] He particularly raised the issue of protecting ‘Muslim minority’ in ‘Hindu majority’ India.

Additionally, he highlighted America’s necessity to engage with such countries despite the concerns, in his words, “You had to do business with them, because they’re important for national security reasons. There are, you know, a range of economic interests”. Obama cited his past engagement with his work with the Chinese President on climate change as an example of finding mutual interests, even with leaders with poor human rights records.

Reflections from the Above Events

Let us begin by looking at some of the Western media’s discussion about Modi being quizzed over the ‘Human Rights’ situation in India that was much celebrated.[9] Many claimed that the events called attention to his ‘autocratic leanings’. Biden was also softly criticised for his silence and for not calling out enough for the ‘human rights situation’ in India. The political culture of the US expects the US leader to be the spokesperson and steward for global peace and human rights to the world. After all, it is a land that has four US presidents who have won the Nobel Prize for Peace, which includes Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama!

These concerns on human rights are also backed by certain documents, opinions formulated by Global Indexes, and orientalist presuppositions about the East that have been constructed by the West for centuries, a practice that is again unknown to non-Western countries like India. Hence, there is something about ‘Human Rights’ in the larger political culture of the West in general and the United States in particular, which requires it to be understood.

The situation is very peculiar to America; the Indian political culture does not lay such an expectation for their leaders. Nothing in India prepares its public to acquire a mindset that their leader should steward the functioning of the world. Even the Hindu prayers for ‘Vishwasanti’ doesn’t offer them to develop such an attitude to look at their leaders and world’s problems. If a leader of the United States, UK, or UAE comes to India, the Indian public won’t criticise its Prime Minister for not asking or not making accountable for a community conflict or freedom in America. Indeed, there are instances where Indian leaders display their concerns related to their diaspora in their respective countries. Still, there is not much public demand or media pressure to discuss such matters in the form of ‘moral positioning’, as it appears in the United States.

The moral positioning was epitomised in Obama’s interview that he gave just hours before Modi arrived at the White House. He shared the burden of American Presidents to engage with leaders of countries with poor human rights records for the sake of humanitarian concerns like ‘climate change’ or national security. The moral obligation or burden of America and its presidents to steward the world is expressed through their politics of human rights.

It should be noted that the US government’s position is not that they are going to determine things for India, rather, Indian democratic institutions in India will be determined within India by Indians.[10] The moral obligation of America will get translated into Indians in the form of moral guilt and consciousness through human rights politics. The US also didn’t locate themselves in a defensive position when India raised human rights concerns in the US as a response. In the words of a US official, “They have raised concerns about human rights and religiously motivated hate crimes here in the United States. We have raised human rights……concerns regularly (in India). We do this in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”[11] By not being defensive over themselves, America strategically prevented India’s moral positioning over their human rights situation.

The picture drawn is simple: the unwillingness to discuss human rights in America makes other countries be perceived as low in democracy standards. Whereas, what makes the US the epicentre of democracy is that it is vocal about global human rights, including the issues of the United States. This visible openness of the US to discuss the human rights situation even in the US gives a legitimacy to ask the same question back. By making human rights a normative discussion point for the world, the US and its machinery re-establishes itself as an epicentre of democracy to the world. For its sake, the US themselves are willing to get subjected to the world under the template of human rights. In fact, this will only feed the ‘moral positioning’ of the United States mentioned earlier in this article.

At this point a few questions could be raised:

How should India strategically respond to this moral positioning? Will a politics of moral positioning, in return, work for India? Will it be sufficient to merely call out right violations back in the US? Will it be enough to share India’s concerns about ethnic violence in the US? Will it be adequate merely to counter with other sets of indexes about Human Rights in the US? Does India have enough machinery to collect the required data from the US in the first place? (Unlike how the US has over countries like India, through NGOs, for instance). India has no particular way of looking at the West, unlike the West, which has their orientalist way of looking at India (East) from colonial times.

As a prerequisite to reflect on the above mentioned questions, it is important for India to understand some of the factors that necessitate the US to do moral policing based on human rights. These factors, internal to American politics, are related to their foundational identity as the ‘mother of exiles’ will be discussed in the second part of this article.


[1]Singh Rahul Sunilkumar “Modi becomes only Indian PM to address US Congress Twice” Hindustan Times. Acessed: July 17, 2023
[2]Aniruddha Dhar “OM Modi addresses joint session of US congress, talks of ‘democracy, terrorism, war’ Hindustan Times. Acessed: July 17m 2023
[3]The question was “India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, but there are many human rights groups who say that your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics. What steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?” See in, Arfa Khanum Sherwani “Modi’s White Lie in the White House” The Wire. Acessed July 17, 2023.
[4]See in “USA: Biden and Modi must address grave human rights concerns during summit” Amnesty International. Accessed July 27, 2023. Also see in “India/US: Put Rights at Center of Modi-Biden Summit” Human Rights Watch. Accessed July 17, 2023.
[5]See the “Joint Statement from the United States and India” June 22, 2023.
[6] “Biden By His Side, Modi Cites 'Constitution' to Parry Question on Minority Rights, Suppression of Dissent” The Wire. Accessed: July 17, 2023.
[7]The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan however said that “we make our views known,” Sullivan said. He added: “We do so in a way where we don’t seek to lecture or assert that we don’t have challenges ourselves. He added “Ultimately, the question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians. It’s not going to be determined by the United States”. See in “Biden will not ‘lecture’ Modi on human rights, says White House” Al Jazeera. Accessed July 17, 2023.
[8]Kevin Liptak “Obama warns democratic institutions are ‘creaky’ but Trump’s indictment is proof rule of law still exists in US” CNN Acessed July 17, 2023.
[9] “US Media's Critical Coverage of Modi Visit Places Human Rights Front and Centre”. The Wire. Accessed: July 17, 2023.
[10] “Biden will not ‘lecture’ Modi on human rights, says White House” Al Jazeera. Accessed: July 17, 2023
[11]Lalit K Jha “India raises human rights, hate crime issues in US”. Rediff. Acessed: July 17, 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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