Congress’s misguided crusade against India

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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India is a budding economic powerhouse which, as a multicultural democracy, shares America’s most important fundamental values. Our relationship with India will be hugely important to us for years to come. This is especially true given recent revelations that our other supposed friend in South Asia, Pakistan, has been secretly (or not so secretly, to those of us who have been paying attention) acting as our enemy. India is in the midst of an important election to choose its next prime minister.

With exquisite timing, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) is pushing a dishonest resolution that gratuitously insults the man who is the odds-on favorite to win that election. Ellison is teaming up with some Christian conservatives like Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) who are, good intentions notwithstanding, picking the wrong battle against the wrong target.

The focus of the congressmen’s ire is Narendra Modi, a free-market, anti-corruption reformer whom I have suggested might be India’s Ronald Reagan. Ellison might agree with that comparison but, as a man of the far left, he would mean it as a slur rather than a compliment. House Resolution 417, co-sponsored and pushed by Ellison, is certainly a slur rather than a compliment—a slur against Modi and against India. It is a ham-fisted attempt to influence India’s election. While it will not succeed in doing that, it could certainly succeed in souring our relationship with what should be an important natural ally if passed.

The resolution creates the impression that Christians are persecuted in India, but the primary example used to support that notion is fairly dated: a single outbreak of Christian-Hindu violence that occurred seven years ago (and had nothing to do with Modi). I respect that the Republican co-sponsors of the resolution have a sincere desire to protect Christians. However, a little perspective is in order: Of all the countries in the world where Christians are a minority, few are more hospitable to Christians than Hindu-majority India. That is why over 25 million Christians choose to live in India, almost 10 times the number in neighboring Pakistan. Given the large number of countries where besieged Christian minorities are in constant mortal danger, it shows a distinct lack of moral judgment to single out India for its supposed persecution of Christians.

The real target of Resolution 417, however, is Modi, who is currently chief minister (governor) of the Indian state of Gujarat. The resolution essentially blames him for anti-Muslim violence that occurred in Gujarat in 2002. That violence occurred after Muslim arsonists burned almost 60 Hindu pilgrims alive on a train. Modi’s critics accused him of facilitating the anti-Muslim retaliation, or at least not doing enough to stop it. The Supreme Court of India appointed a special investigation team that cleared Modi of any wrongdoing, but the authors of Resolution 417 somehow forgot to mention that.

Those who don’t like Modi, for political or other reasons, will always cling to the belief that he was somehow responsible for the 2002 violence. But beliefs, even sincere ones, are no substitute for evidence derived from a thorough investigation.

By ignoring the Supreme Court’s findings, Ellison and his comrades are essentially impugning the integrity of India’s highest court. What evidence do they have that Modi was indeed at fault? The best they can come up with is a magazine report quoting some of the rioters. According to these rioters, the riots wouldn’t have been possible without Modi’s “connivance.” In yet another glaring and dishonest omission, the resolution fails to inform us that the magazine quoted, Tehelka, supports the very political dynasty that Modi is trying to unseat. And it strains credulity that street rioters would have first-hand knowledge that the chief minister was “conniving” behind the scenes. In the face of the Supreme Court’s exhaustive and authoritative investigation, Resolution 417 presents a pretty pathetic case for our continued ostracization of India’s likely next prime minister.

The resolution praises the U.S. State Department’s 2005 decision to deny Modi a visa because of his alleged “egregious religious freedom violations.” According to the resolution, this was the “first and only time such a denial has been issued” on those grounds. That says more about the moral confusion of the State Department than it does about Modi.

The religious violence that occurs from time to time in India is indeed tragic, and India has not yet fully erased the rivalries created by centuries of divide-and-rule colonialism. But there is simply no comparison between India, where the government and dominant culture strive to accommodate religious diversity under very difficult conditions, and the many countries (including several in India’s neighborhood) where the government and dominant culture work together to systematically stamp out religious diversity. Muslims and other religious minorities practice their faith freely in Modi’s Gujarat; there are few places in the Muslim world where Hindus, Christians, or other minorities are given the same respect.

We routinely grant visas to nut-job religious fanatics who refuse to tolerate the practice of minority religions in their countries. We routinely grant visas to leaders who openly and unabashedly reject religious freedom as a value, and who teach religious hatred as a matter of national policy. And yet the Inspector Clouseaus in our intrepid State Department have singled out Narendra Modi — the popular leader of a religiously diverse state in a religiously diverse country — as the only person in the entire world whose “egregious religious freedom violations” make him unfit to set foot our soil. Somewhere in heaven, even George Orwell is shaking his head in disbelief.

In the State Department’s defense, their denial of Modi’s visa came before he was cleared by the Supreme Court. Resolution 417, however, urges us to perpetuate that mistake. Team Ellison would presumably bar Modi from this country even if he became prime minister after a free and democratic election. Continuing to ban him at that point would be an unwarranted and offensive slap in the face not only to Modi, but to the people of India.

A growing bipartisan group of lawmakers is fighting the resolution. They include Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, a Samoan American combat veteran from Hawaii who, as the first Hindu elected to Congress, understands why the resolution is so unfair to Hindus. Democrat Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa has been a staunch opponent as well. Republican foreign policy expert Ed Royce of California, not surprisingly, has the good sense to oppose the resolution as well. Republicans Steve Chabot of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania withdrew their support, and Democrats Mike Honda, Brad Sherman and Eric Swalwell of California are also in opposition.

The resolution’s co-sponsors include many legislators whom I greatly respect, and whom I routinely cheer on in almost every other circumstance. Perhaps if they were aware of the crucial facts that the drafters inexcusably omitted from the resolution, they would conclude that they had been snookered into lending their good names to an intellectually indefensible document. The fight for international religious freedom is one of the great causes of our time. It will not be served by a wrongheaded, morally muddled attack on the world’s largest democracy.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.