Narendra Modi’s thumping electoral victory and his ascension as Prime Minister has evoked all kinds of reactions across the world—the reactions fall in the broad gamut between “how could this happen?” to “who is this guy?” But given its preeminent status as the lone superpower, the reactions from the United States merit a deeper examination not merely because of the reasonably deep engagement India has with it but more to determine the future direction of this engagement in Prime Minister Modi’s regime.
In the last ten or so days, we only have media reports to rely on the US thinking with regard to Modi. Although the media only mentions “official sources,” one factor seems to be consistent: the US has reached out to Narendra Modi in an unprecedented manner. It has offered carrot after carrot couched in such terms as giving India a “special role,” its willingness to be “flexible to adapt to India’s defence needs,” and to top it all, its offer of having a “special gesture date” by breaking protocol to meet him in September (when the UNGA meet is scheduled). The short version is that it looks like Narendra Modi might visit the US in September. Yet, all this is still media speculation: no official communique has been issued yet.
Obvious questions arise. Is this unprecedented approach an indirect way of making up to Modi for the 2005 visa denial? Is it fear of the emergence of a powerful (read: disobedient to US diktats) and broad Asian bloc led by an India under Modi’s leadership? Is it a tacit recognition that it would no longer be take an India under Modi for granted? Indeed, even as late as on May 15, the US declared “no automatic visa for Modi as PM.” It could be one or all of the above.
There is also the suspicion that all these news items were deliberate leaks to gauge India’s official response. And if these are indeed leaks, the aim could perhaps be to get feedback about the public sentiment towards the “proposed” trip.
And so, both the US and Narendra Modi need to address a significant but unresolved matter before he decides to say yes: the visa denial.
Where it all began
The story of Narendra Modi’s US visa denial really begins in 1994 when the Republicans took majority control of the House of Representatives. Two years later, the National Association of Evangelicals, a fellowship of about 42,000 Evangelical Churches sponsored a summit, which was organized by Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. The outcome of the summit in the words of its participants was to urge the “government of the United States [to] take appropriate action to combat the intolerable religious persecution now victimizing fellow believers and those of other faiths.”
Two more years later, on 27 January 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) came into force. It was originally introduced by the Republican Representative, Frank Wolf. This law gave birth to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government-funded agency. It was the machinations of the USCIRF that eventually led to Modi’s visa denial.
If there’s one thing the Church lobby in the US is never short of, it is money. And when a group of 42000 Evangelical Churches come together, they usually achieve the outcome they desire. In other words, this gargantuan Evangelical lobby received “Government” status with the blessings of sitting politicians. The IRFA and the USCIRF’s lofty concern for religious freedom was a mere garb. What was left unstated was the right to convert non-Christians across the world. Evangelism was officially made one of the tools of US foreign policy.
But there’s another layer of duplicity here. Frank Wolf’s original conception of the IRFA contained sanctions for those countries that “violated religious freedom,” a euphemism for “resisting Christian conversions.” However, this didn’t pass muster in the face of strident opposition from powerful corporate interests who had sprawling businesses in all sorts of vile dictatorships. Which simply means that these US corporates opposed it because they were willing to ignore all sorts of atrocities committed in say Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Business always trumps such pesky notions. And so the combined might of 42000 Evangelical Churches was powerless against the corporate lobby.
USCIRF sets the tone
But no such luck for India where the USCIRF almost had a free run thanks to a spineless former PM named Manmohan Singh.
Enter Felice Gaer. We shall let Zahir Janmohamed, the person who had “a front-row seat to” the sordid Modi-visa-denial affair, speak:
Felice D. Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s human rights program, was selected as a [USCIRF] commissioner in 2001, she decided to widen the panel’s scope to other religions. “I wanted to turn this around, to make our focus broader,” Ms. Gaer said in an interview. This chance came in February 2002 when she learned about the riots in Gujarat, India. “We learned about the riots in real time. We had people on staff who kept telling us we need to do something,” Ms. Gaer said… Ms. Gaer tried to arrange an official commission trip to India to survey the damage caused by the 2002 riots but was denied permission to enter India.
So what did Gaer do when the permission was denied? She simply flew down some Indians to “testify” before a hearing she had organized on 10 June 2002. The names of these Indians are now very familiar for their infamy: Teesta Setalvad, Father Cedric Prakash, Najid Hussain (son-in-law of Ahsan Jaffri, the Gujarat MP killed in the riots), Kamal Mitra Chenoy (former Professor at JNU, and current member of the Aam Aadmi Party), and Sumit Ganguly (Professor of Asian Studies in the Texas University).
A reading of the transcript of the hearing makes several things clear immediately:
- The USCIRF has no jurisdiction over an issue purely internal to India.
- It was not really a hearing but a sham, a Kangaroo court whose outcome has already been decided—to demonize and vilify Narendra Modi and various Hindu groups.
- The ease with which the US was able to co-opt and invite some Indians with vested interests and dangerous agendas in the name of minority and human rights, and its version of religious freedom.
- Nobody from any Hindu group or the Indian/Gujarat Government was invited to give their side of the events.
- Because India denied permission to the USCIRF to visit Gujarat, the “recommendations” the hearing made were based purely on the “testimony” of these Indians with vested interests.
- Even worse, Government investigations into the Gujarat riots had barely begun but the USCIRF’s “hearing” had already declared Narendra Modi guilty.
- The USCIRF’s “recommendations” set the tone for Modi’s eventual visa denial in 2005.
Indeed, this hearing had far-reaching implications in how the Gujarat riots discourse was scripted thereafter. Things like “thousands of Muslims were killed,” “genocide,” “holocaust,” “Nazi,” “Hitler,” and “ethnic cleansing” were casually bandied about by Teesta and co in this hearing. An entire Gujarat riots cottage industry was born. Plays were staged, documentaries were made, books, poems and copious articles and academic papers were written, all of which precisely contained embellished and subtle versions of this “testimony.”
It is also worth examining some of the “recommendations” our Indian testifiers made to the USCIRF in the hearing:
- Father Cedric Prakash beseeched the USCIRF to recommend a “powerful intervention” by the US Government and from “all over the world.”
- Dr. Sumit Ganguly asks the US to “certainly chide India…in a fairly sharp language” and use “various nongovernmental organizations to…change the state…of religious rites (sic. Rights) in India.”
- Dr. Sumit Ganguly also advocates that the US use “tactics and strategy rather than substance” to isolate the BJP politically within India by lobbying with its political opponents.
Incredibly, the combined intelligence of the people with important-sounding official titles at the USCIRF uncritically swallowed all of this as Gospel Truth.
From this emerged the USCIRF recommendations, an important one being the need for the “United States and private individuals [to] work to strengthen those individuals and organizations within India that are trying to promote tolerance and communal harmony.”
It is thus not entirely coincidental that Teesta Setalvad received a $90000 grant from Ford Foundation in 2004, and $250000 in 2009. This is apart from similarly enormous sums she has received to keep the Gujarat issue alive: here’s the full list.
The outcome of the USCIRF hearing was precisely what various India and Hindu-baiters wanted. A pressure group was formed within the US whose tentacles spread to the highest Government levels in the US and then to India. Two key people led this lobby, and both were Indians: the Indian evangelist John Prabhudoss and Raju Rajagopal (a retired doctor). These two teamed up and successfully lobbied Republican Representatives Joe Pitts (Pennsylvania) and Frank Wolf (Virginia) and convinced them to accompany the Indian-born duo to a trip to Ahmedabad in the winter of 2002. That was a significant victory of sorts because this pressure group grew enormously influential in a short span.
The club of Evangelist Republican Representatives
To fully understand the significance of this, we need examine the roles played by specific Republican Representatives.
The first of course is Frank Wolf, who introduced the IRFA bill, which later became law. Other names include the selfsame Joe Pitts, Trent Franks (Arizona), and Dan Burton (Indiana). Apart from being politicians, these names also share a few other things in common: they are all active supporters of Evangelism. Three chief ways in which they extend their support include drafting Evangelism-friendly legislation, offering financial and lobbying muscle to Evangelical organizations and attempting to thwart obstacles to Evangelism.
Joe Pitts and Trent Franks are closely associated with Evangelism Explosion International, a missionary outfit. Both have received its “Christian Statesmanship” awards in the past.
Joe Pitts and Frank Wolf are also members of perhaps the most influential Christian Fundamentalist outfit, The Fellowship, which has frightening levels of power. It funded both Pitts’ and Wolf’s 2002 trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan where they spoke to Musharraf about how they are “best friends…. We’re members of the same prayer group.”
And Trent Franks, Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts, and Dan Burton are all members of the International religious freedom caucus (IRFC) a bi-partisan group of about 60 Congressional members “who address religious persecution for people of any or no faith.” Trent Franks is a co-founder of this caucus, founded in 2006. Incidentally, in 2011, the FBI netted Dan Burton for having received tainted funds for his campaign, tracing it all the way back to the ISI—in the Indian parlance, Burton was also one of Ghulam Nabi Fai’s minions.
It’s interesting that neither the IRFC nor these individual representatives have a record of addressing religious persecution of Hindus anywhere in the world—Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Indian North East, West Bengal, and Fiji. If the USCIRF has taken upon itself to care for Indian Muslims and Christians living in India, one wonders why it has remained mum on the continuing cleansing and harassment of Hindus in West Bengal and the North East.
And it is the combined might of these influential politicians that Raju Rajagopal and John Prabhudoss were able to tap into. The result was that they were able to directly influence Dick Cheney who ordered the sign off on the piece of paper that denied the US visa to Narendra Modi. The late B. Raman narrates the entire sordid saga of how (primarily) John Prabhudoss orchestrated the plot. Back then, Raju gloated how
When we heard about Modi’s visit, we were ready,” Mr. Rajagopal said. “Actually, we had been ready and waiting for Modi’s visit for a few years.” […] “It was a tremendous victory…
But it was a massive defeat for India, which did not stand up for its dignity. It’s anybody’s guess how the US would’ve reacted if India had denied a visa to Joe Pitts and Frank Wolf who visited Ahmedabad to meddle in an affair internal India.
Manmohan Singh allows USCIRF to have a rogue run in India
But India’s spineless response to Modi’s visa denial set a precedent. In fact, much jubilation erupted in the ruling Congress party circles as well as among the usual suspects in the secular firmament.
The US then realized that it could bully India with impunity.
As the Sunday Guardian revealed in April, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had set up a special “get Narendra Modi” cell in the Obama administration. Indeed, in the years that followed, she unleashed the vast and apparently unconnected army of NGOs across the world to play all sorts of subversive games in India. It is a very telling commentary on the state of affairs that 65 MPs (labelled on social media as 65 traitors) had the gall to send a signed “appeal” to Obama to continue the “no visa policy” to Narendra Modi as late as July 2013 and defiantly, proudly justified this treasonous act.
It also helped that India was in the vise-like grip of the seditious NAC, Sonia Gandhi’s super cabinet accountable to none. The NAC itself was a tightly-knit unit of various NGO owners firmly committed to incendiary ideologies like Maoism and lent overt and covert support for Evangelism among other destructive activities. Teesta Setalvad too was a member of this cabal. When the Government launched an investigation into the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, it discovered direct funding linkages from various European Christian organizations to the protestors. It was also no secret that most of these protestors were affiliated to local Churches.
The US must apologize to Narendra Modi
This is the real issue, the real obstacle that the US needs to overcome before trying to recraft its engagement with India. To put it bluntly, the US needs to apologize to Narendra Modi for denying him the visa. As my good friend and economist Dr. Atanu Dey said, “Narendra Modi should not go to the US until it formally apologizes for having unfairly accused him of being a criminal. Nothing compels a man to take an accusation without resistance unless the man is guilty. So Narendra Modi going to the US without getting that matter resolved is tantamount to admitting that he is a criminal.”
On his part, Narendra Modi has begun on the right note by recovering with a bang what Manmohan Singh had so willingly mortgaged: India’s self-respect. India’s respect on the international stage had reached its nadir under Dr. Singh.
On 16 May on social media, Modi sent his Prime Ministerial thanks to Japan, Israel and other nations ahead of the US, placing it lower in the pecking order. And even as we speak, he has left the US guessing on how it needs to deal with him. Modi’s visa was denied under the Republican regime but ever since, the Democrats—special emphasis on Hillary Clinton—stepped up the hostility against him. This once again underscores the expedient and self-serving nature of US foreign policy to which previous Indian regimes have fallen prey.
And India should see no reason not to play the same game given that it has lost dearly by playing the game according to US rules: unchecked missionary conversions which have disrupted social harmony in large parts of the country and the Kudankulam type protests which impede the urgent necessity to revive the economy. The recent IB report to the Prime Minister reveals the extent of damage the US policy towards India has done: “the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has submitted a classified document identifying several foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are “negatively impacting economic development”. A significant number of Indian NGOs (funded by some donors based in the US, the UK, Germany, The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries) have been noticed to be using people centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to set the terms of engagement from a position of strength. That includes but is not limited to the following:
- An unconditional apology for the visa denial.
- A complete clampdown on the USCIRF-type of roguish interference in India’s internal affairs.
- No cutting cross deals with Pakistan and non-interference in how India will deal with this failed neighbour.
- A total weeding out of US-funded/backed NGOs which it has successfully used to foment trouble within India.
- None of the human rights drama, another successful tactic, which in the past kept India perpetually on the defensive.
It is clear that the US has realized that it is dealing with a very different type of Indian Prime Minister. The “flexible approach” and over-the-top “reaching out” messages perhaps signal this but India needs to be wary. Overall, the Obama tenure has ended up in shambles and the US needs India more than India needs it.
Zahir Janmohamad’s article mentions a senior official in the Obama administration as saying:
“I know it is a cliché,” the official said, “but our talking point on India has always been, ‘India and the U.S. are both democracies that share the same values.’ You cannot really apply that statement to Modi. If Modi becomes prime minister, I guess we will have to come up with something new to say.”
Narendra Modi has become Prime Minister. And the US is now left searching for that “something new to say.”
Sandeep Balakrishna is a columnist and author of Tipu Sultan: the Tyrant of Mysore. He has translated S.L. Bhyrappa’s “Aavarana: the Veil” from Kannada to English.