On June 22, the White House held a “welcoming ceremony” for visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the South Lawn of the White House, where members of the public could register to attend.
I signed up, along with my friends Keya and Apoorva. Our goal was not to welcome Modi, but rather to be a visible presence as dissenting voices. We wore t-shirts with the hand-painted message “Modi=Fascist” under our outer garments and smuggled in printed signs denouncing the Modi government’s human rights violations and persecution of religious minorities.
An overwhelming majority of the crowd of more than 1,000 were Indian American, and judging by their chants and their visible symbols, many were Modi supporters.
It was an intimidating experience, the enormity of which didn’t hit me until after the adrenaline rush had worn off. We had managed to enter one of the most secure places on earth with materials that were expressly forbidden, surrounded by a crowd that included many hostile people.
Why did we take this risk?
One Hundred Years of Indian Fascism
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi’s political party, is closely affiliated with an organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that was founded in 1925, and Modi himself is a long-time RSS member.
Given this connection, the history of the RSS is highly relevant to understanding Indian politics today. Early RSS leaders and their mentors had met with Mussolini, praised Hitler in their writings (which the RSS distanced itself from only after a gap of almost 70 years), and made speeches claiming Indian Muslims and German Jews had suspect loyalty to their countries.
This isn’t just decades-old history. The ruling BJP government under Modi is faithfully following the RSS agenda.
In the state of Assam, the BJP government stripped 2 million people (disproportionately Muslim or transgender) of their citizenship and put them in concentration camps. In the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, the government used internet shutdowns and extreme state violence to stamp out local demands for self-determination.
It passed a law that facilitated naturalization by people from neighboring countries, but explicitly excluded Muslims from eligibility, and accused leaders of the movement against this discriminatory law of “sedition.”
When Indian farmers organized the largest protest movement in history to protest unjust farm procurement laws, the government reacted with violence — and used criminal charges to intimidate journalists who covered the protests and youth climate activists organizing in solidarity with the farmers.
In a particularly egregious case of the Modi government’s war on dissent, several well-known scholars and activists known for their support for equality for Dalits (the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy) have been accused of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister. It’s very likely that authorities used malware to plant evidence on the computers of the accused.
In typical fascist fashion, the Modi government doesn’t merely carry out its own violent agenda, but tacitly encourages “stochastic violence” by its base. Examples include the pattern of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls by upper-caste Hindu perpetrators (who often face no consequences), and attacks on mosques and Christian churches by mobs tied to the ruling BJP.
Biden’s Foreign Policy Blunder
None of this could possibly be unknown to the Biden administration when they rolled out the red carpet for Modi.
The U.S. government’s own Commission on International Religious Freedom has described religious freedom in India as “taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities.” State Department officials have faced uncomfortable media questions about their position on human rights in India.
The administration has made the political choice to ignore these concerns, motivated by deference to the business interests of U.S. technology giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, who have extensive operations in India — and seeing India as an ally in Washington’s geopolitical rivalry with China.
It’s an incredibly short-sighted position, and harmful to U.S. interests defined in a more long-term and holistic manner.
The Modi government is deeply polarizing, and open U.S. support for it in spite of these human rights concerns will inevitably be perceived in India as the U.S. government taking a side in Indian domestic politics. If India goes through severe trauma but emerges free of the BJP-RSS tyranny, subsequent Indian governments — and large sections of the Indian public — will have every right to be mistrustful of the United States.
For context, the BJP received only 37 percent of the popular vote in the last general election, which was enough to win a decisive Parliamentary majority in India’s first-past-the-post voting system.
The Biden administration may, in fact, be damaging the prospects of good relations with India in the long-term by openly embracing Modi.
Fascism For Export
There are also serious potential domestic repercussions in the U.S. that the Biden administration is wilfully ignoring.
Mussolini had said that fascism was not “for export,” but subsequent events in Germany, Spain, and elsewhere showed that it was. The present political moment in much of the world has sinister parallels with that dark time.
It’s also true that the U.S. far right doesn’t exist in isolation from the global far right. My IPS colleague John Feffer has documented the rise of a very consciously globally interconnected far right, who lack a formal global alliance but have a remarkable degree of ideological coherence and political coordination.
A few critical details are worth noting. Leading U.S. fascist ideologue Steve Bannon admires Modi and tried (unsuccessfully) to set up an Indian offshoot of the U.S. right-wing media platform Breitbart to assist Modi’s election in 2019. Bannon even co-chaired the Republican Hindu Coalition, an Indian-American organization whose very title betrays its ethnonationalism.
More recently, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, a political action committee associated with the BJP’s Sangh Parivar (family of organizations) tweeted in support of the decision.
By embracing Modi, the Biden administration is effectively lending its support to global far-right forces who have no love for pluralistic democracy in India, the U.S., or anywhere else. It isn’t a stretch to say that these international right-wing forces will collaborate with their U.S. counterparts to undermine democracy here. They’re already doing it.
Room for Optimism
Coming back to our protest on the White House lawn, we were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the crowd. Most people ignored us, and two berated us, with one of them proving our point by calling us “Muslims.” However, six people, five of whom were Indian American, expressed their appreciation for our little show of dissent. We gathered that two of them were required to be there by their employers.
After being escorted out of the White House by the Secret Service, we joined a small but energetic protest against Modi’s visit on Black Lives Matter Plaza, North of the White House.
Speakers addressed the epidemic of violence against Dalit women and girls, the ongoing state-sponsored pogrom against Indigenous peoples in the state of Manipur, and the overall loss of democratic space in the world’s most populous country.
Despite the high-level political support in the U.S. for a close alliance with the Indian government in spite of its anti-democratic record, a growing number of voices within the U.S. are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition. Continued U.S. support for the murderous Modi regime will become a serious political liability for the U.S. government, including here at home.