Dear Ms. Katrina Swett Lantos,
This is with reference to the remarks made by you and your colleague and the chairman of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom about Indian government’s decision to deny visa to the team of commissioners who wished to visit the country in order to investigate incidents of religious intolerance and suppression of minority’s rights. You have termed the decision of Indian government as “a tremendous missed opportunity”. I beg to differ with you, I feel this decision has provided Indians like me with a tremendous opportunity to take a closer look at the USCIRF and its functionaries.
First of all, let’s provide some context to this controversy. US state department denied visa to India’s current Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi (who at that time was the Chief Minister of Gujarat ) , holding him responsible ( basis innuendo and hearsay than any real evidence) for the communal riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002.
In an interview to New York Times carried on August 13th ,2013, you in your capacity as a member of the USCIRF advocated continuing the policy of not allowing Mr. Modi entry in USA even if he became Prime Minister. As a matter of fact, the timing of the interview which was published barely a month before BJP made the official announcement of Mr. Modi’s name as its Prime Ministerial Candidate (it was a foregone conclusion in political circles at least 2-3 months prior to that) coupled with your opening remarks where you say “For the people of India, I think it is important for them to consider very carefully who it is who they want to be their next prime minister. But I think it is a bit of information that will help them as they go through that electoral process. It is our view and view of many others that Mr. Modi shall not be granted the privilege of U.S. visa because of the very serious doubts that remain and that hang over Mr. Modi relative to his role in the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat.”
I will circle back to your interview full of conjectures, suppositions and blatant lies later. But for now let’s establish the fact that you did not wish Mr. Narendra Modi to enter your country even if he became a Prime Minister (to speak nothing of the fact that you had the imperialist arrogance to assume Indian voter will care two hoots about whether US allows our PM to enter their country) so now that he is the PM (and given a red carpet by your own countrymen and President) why do you find it so surprising that India is reluctant to let you in?
Isn’t it nothing but the white arrogance to assume that the United States reserves rights of admission while its politicians have an all access pass to the world? Because there is also no mistaking the fact that USCIRF is a political body run by career politicians. You yourself made an unsuccessful bid for the Congressional seat vacated by your husband in 2002 along with two primary bids (2008 senate and 2010 Congress, both unsuccessful).
The Chairman of the USCIRF Robert P George has been active in politics for over four decades. Leonard A Leo, a former Chairperson of the USCIRF has served as the Catholic strategist for the 2004 Bush Presidential campaign. I can go on but you see my point.
Having said that, let me, as a non-office holding Indian express what are my reservations about your proposed field trip. This is what USCIRF chairman Robert P George had to say about the visa denial “One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF…”
Well Mr. George it is not that we don’t welcome this opportunity but we do not see the need of it. First, and let me not be indelicate about it but Americans are notorious for their prejudiced and often hilariously wrong knowledge about India. From pulp novelist the late Sidney Sheldon mentioning Kolkata as India’s capital in his 1987 novel “windmills of the Gods” to thousands of average television viewers taking Hindu- Indian origin Miss America Nina Davuluri as an Arab (member of Al-qaeda, no less), hardly a day goes by when we do not see your average ill-informed American surprised at not encountering elephants while walking on the streets of our national capital.
Personally, I do not see this necessarily as a racism issue (though there is a compelling case of racism to be made against folks who call the daughter of an Indian origin doctor Arab Terrorist because she had the temerity to win a beauty competition), I just think generally you people are ignorant to the extent that would be considered comical by the educated Indians. It is a proven fact that on the eve of the Iraq war, over 70 % Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.
A National Geographic Survey showed one in three Americans could not find Great Britain on a map. In the same group 65 % respondent thought America’s population to be between 750 million to 2 billion. It was actually 298 million. A National Science Foundation poll suggests nearly 1 out of 4 Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. I am all for outsiders coming in and telling us what we are doing wrong, but in light of these staggering numbers you will pardon me for being a tad cynical.
Now let’s circle back to the interview you gave to NYT and analyse it a bit for intent as well as information quality.
While speaking about the convicted state minister Ms. Maya Kodnani, you have this to say “it is highly unlikely at the very least that this minister would have been engaged to the degree that she was without the knowledge, without the direction from Mr. Modi.”. Ms. Swett, there is a term for this kind of insinuation from your own history. It is guilty by association and it invokes the darkest days of state persecution in USA’s history i.e. the McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt. I wonder if any politician in 21st century will make a statement as irresponsible as this.
Next you mention the “There is of course the very damning sworn notarized affidavit of former deputy commissioner of police Sanjeev Bhatt, which is really an eyewitness account. He is not simply providing sworn testimony as to events that happened on the streets. His testimony is also regarding things that were said by Mr. Modi in his presence”.
As you are aware ,Mr. Bhatt’s testimony was rubbished by the SIT investigating the Gujarat riots and in a ruling given over a year before your interview with NYT, the SIT had conclusively ruled that Bhatt was not present at the meeting you referred to and hence his testimony was false.
As of today, Bhatt is terminated from his services and his attempts to appeal have all been unsuccessful. The supreme court of India, while quashing his plea noted “Bhatt “was not acting bona-fide and was catering to the interest elsewhere”, and further stated “petitioner (Bhatt) was in active touch with leaders of rival political party, NGOs, their lawyers tried to play media card, was being tutored by NGOs. He had probably forgotten that he was a senior IPS officer”.
So much for the damning sworn notarized affidavit eh?
Next you shift grounds (sensing lack of evidence probably) and say “there have been very few convictions”. Wrong. There have been over 440 convictions that include the sitting minister of state Ms. Maya Kodnani. Compare that with your own country that has convicted less than 320 terrorists since 9/11.
The most ridiculous (or grave) misstep occurs in the very next sentence where you say “Certainly in our system of justice you can be found not guilty, which is not the same thing as found innocent.” What?? No, really, what??? Isn’t ‘innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt’ the gold standard of criminal justice system? You are actually rubbishing that; saying, sometimes just because I can’t prove your guilt, doesn’t mean I can’t stop accusing you of exactly the same crime you were exonerated of? You are a Doctor of Law from the California University Ms. Swett. As Tom Cruise asks Demi Moore In “A Few Good Men” “were you sick the day they taught law at law school?”
Lest this become a political shouting match, allow me to move on from your ill-founded opinions about Gujarat riots and concentrate on your understanding of USCIRF’s role. In a question about the selective involvement of USCIRF you brazenly admit “we tend to expect more of democracies than we do of dictatorships.” I am sorry for being blunt, but this is the statement of a pencil pushing career bureaucrat who would like to wield power only on soft targets. Basically not only you are aware that you are opposing religious extremism where it is at its lowest (if at all) but you approve of it as a policy.
American Comedian Bill Maher, in this hilarious clip here calls this attitude, (even if he is talking about a different set of liberals) “nit-picky, intra mural attacking of friends for insufficient purity. Compulsively cleaning up little corners of the room that is already quiet clean while there are giant piles of s**t everywhere else”. The social justice warriors of Indian history were made up of far tougher fibre than this Ms. Swett. Those agents of change survived attacks on their lives and social boycott for their beliefs and battles. To see a member of the most protected country in the world throw in towel like this before dictatorship is truly sad.
You conclude this interview with the classic liberal “disagreement as proof of moral deficiency” argument where you term the difference amongst US lawmakers whether to allow Mr. Modi visa or not as “I don’t think it breaks along partisan lines. I think it breaks down along which congressmen prioritize human rights versus who don’t.” Bottom line- whoever doesn’t agree with your world-view basically does not have human rights as a priority. I fail to see how the Indian government does not admire your open mindedness and spirit of democratic debate.
I also feel your own support base and affiliations have several questionable components from the viewpoint of religious freedom. Herbert Sandler, who supported your unsuccessful bid to Congress in 2002, is among the biggest benefactors of “Centre for American progress” a so called left leaning think tank who is often accused of anti-Semitism as well as criticized for failure to disclose its contributors.
I find this truly astonishing given that your own father was a holocaust survivor. Also and while we admire your stand to term ISIS acts in Syria as “genocide”, as a democratic party appointment to the USCIRF (chosen by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), we really do not see enough outrage against the Obama administration’s soft stand on Islamic radicals.
The other part that makes me worry when I take a look at the composition of USCIRF is of course, the history of its own members when it comes to civil rights issue in America and other countries. Prof. Robert P George, the chairperson, is a lifelong opponent of a woman’s right to choose, in fact he left Democratic Party in the 1980s due to his difference with a majority of them over the issue of abortion.
In 2009, while America was waging two wars and the world was in the grip of the most serious financial crisis since 1929, Prof George drafted the notorious “ Manhattan Declaration: a call to Christian conscience” ; a manifesto that basically asks all Christians to reaffirm their anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research, anti-same sex marriage stance. The same manifesto also calls for “civil disobedience” if a Christian feels his/her basic values are being challenged by the country’s law.
This document was roundly criticized by all but the most fanatical Evangelicals and Apple was even forced to withdraw the Manhattan declaration app due to its bigotry and homophobic content. Mr. George is also a leading member of the “theoconservatism” movement that preaches extremist Christian values and believes that America is rooted in the idea of Christianity.
In India, women have an absolute right to choose, and that debate was settled over forty years back. Any politician claiming abortion as murder is apt to be laughed out of his seat in the next election. We encourage stem cell research, mostly because we are not wacko enough to see life in a petri dish. The debate on same sex marriage is picking momentum here, we really do not need bigots who preach civil disobedience against usage of condoms to come and observe us.
Another of your commissioners Mary Ann Glendon was chosen for Laetare Medal by Notre Dame University in 2009. She denied the medal. The reason? The School was hosting as commencement speaker and bestowing an honorary degree upon a person who was pro-choice in the abortion debate. The name of the controversial speaker? Barrack Obama, President of the United States.
Look I am not taking the moral high ground here. I understand there are two sides to every debate. All I am saying is when you talk about positions like observers and inspectors about something as intimate and controversial as religion, it is fair expectation to have those observers having as little skin in the game as possible. People who insult the President of their own country for his views on abortion and people who drafts manifesto to ban stem cell research have a lot of skin in this particular game.
For people like George and Gledon to be neutral about a Hindu majority country in view of their own fanatical faith in their religion is about as naïve as a Pepsico Inspector impartially giving quality assurance certificate to coca cola plant.In your recent comments you have welcome us to come to USA and inspect the treatment of minorities in USA.
The offer is very generous Ms. Swett but I think we will wait till you sort out the treatment given to women (at half the population they are hardly the minority and yet one half of your political apparatus is intent on crushing their right to choose), and get some discipline in your college campuses that are fast becoming armies of leftist thugs who literally shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. The problem with USA is not hidden bigotry and injustice. It is out in the open. Problem is that of political will power.
And unlike you, our faith in the institution of democracy demands we give you a little more time to set your house in order.
Mayuresh runs a financial advisory business in Pune and is an avid marathon runner and reader. His novel ‘The Dark Road’ is now available on Juggernaut app here: https://www.juggernaut.in/books/657f2054995249e48c8a753040e01fb7