Modi's Rotten Human Rights Record Didn't Keep Biden From Hosting Him

"During the visit, Biden could have refrained from deep public embraces of Modi or from emphasizing India's democracy. He chose to do neither," says Michael Kugelman.


President Joe Biden is once again facing criticism from human rights advocates, this time for hosting a leader overseeing a backsliding democracy filled with religious violence and attacks on journalists.

On Thursday, Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an official state visit that included ceremonial displays of unity, an Oval Office meeting, a press conference, and a lavish state dinner. The visit marked the third official state visit of Biden's presidency—the other two were French President Emmanuel Macron and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol—and is Modi's first of this kind in the U.S. 

In a bicameral letter written by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D–Md.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D–Wash.) and signed by over 70 other members of Congress, the lawmakers encouraged Biden to make human rights and democratic values a priority in the meeting.

"A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access," said the letter. "We do not endorse any particular Indian leader or political party—that is the decision of the people of India—but we do stand in support of the important principles that should be a core part of American foreign policy."

"It is deeply concerning that the Indian government continues to implement policies that negatively impact Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindu Dalit communities," noted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's Stephen Schneck in a press release. "During this state visit, we ask President Biden to raise religious freedom with Prime Minister Modi directly, including by urging him to amend or repeal policies that target and repress religious minorities."

"Certainly, the optics of President Biden, who emphasizes the importance of a values-based foreign policy, pulling out all the stops for and feting a leader with Modi's record on rights are suboptimal," explains Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. "But then again even a values-based administration will ultimately defer to that adage of international relations: Interests trump moral and values-based considerations."

The visit provided the U.S. with an opportunity to strengthen its relationship with India by agreeing to increased military and economic cooperation, new deals involving drones and semiconductors, and the removal of tariffs on U.S. products.

Because of its growing economy and proximity to China, India is an important ally. 

"India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China," explains Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Foreign Affairs.

Before the meeting, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed that Biden would privately raise issues with India's violations of human rights and democratic backsliding, but insisted that it would be diplomatic. During a Tuesday interview, Sullivan told reporters that Biden would "try to indicate where we stand without coming across as somehow talking down to or lecturing another country that has a proud history of sovereignty." 

"During the visit, Biden could have refrained from deep public embraces of Modi or from emphasizing India's democracy. He chose to do neither," says Kugelman. "Rights activists and other critics will be disappointed, but ultimately from the administration's perspective the strategic imperative of partnership rules out doing anything that could rock the boat. That explains the kid gloves treatment on rights."

Until the Biden administration takes tangible steps to put human rights concerns at the forefront of its foreign policy, it cannot claim human rights as a priority.