Well-intentioned US policies sometimes work out in absurd ways, but this is hard to top. In a few weeks, India, the world’s largest democracy, will probably elect as its next prime minister a politician who for nearly a decade has been prohibited from setting foot on the American soil.
The banned Indian politician is Narendra Modi, a longtime “Hindu nationalist” who is the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Nine years ago, US officials denied Modi a visa just as he was preparing to travel to New York to address Indian-Americans at a rally scheduled at the Madison Square Garden.
The decision taken in 2005 was based on Modi’s perceived failure to stop a series of deadly riots three years earlier by Hindus against minority Muslims in Gujarat, where he was (and remains) the chief minister. The State Department invoked a little-known US law passed in 1998 that makes foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. Modi is the only person ever denied a visa to the US under this provision, officials confirm.
The decision by the George W Bush administration now puts President Barack Obama in a bind. The US could continue to deny entry to the likely leader of a democracy of great strategic importance. However, virtually everyone seems to believe that once Modi’s party wins office, the US will reverse its decision, and he will finally get his visa.
“Now that it looks like Modi will become prime minister, it’s reasonable for the Obama Administration to say it’s been 12 years [since the 2002 riots], and we’ll be happy to deal with him,” says Nicholas Burns, the former Under-Secretary of State who supervised India policy during Bush’s second term.
But even if Modi ultimately gets the visa, it is worth recalling the circumstances in which he was initially denied the permission. The story begins in 1998, when Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which set up new US mechanisms to combat religious persecution, including a standing Commission on International Religious Freedom. At the time, many members of the Congress were concerned about reports that Christians were being persecuted in such places as China and Sudan. But critics said that the act reflected a Christian or Judeo-Christian bias. The National Council of Churches even warned that the new law might “promote the cause of Christians to the exclusion of persecuted believers of other religions.”
That’s where Modi enters the story. He was virtually raised by India’s Hindu nationalist movement. The son of a local grocer, he spent his childhood in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that has sought to turn India, which is wildly diverse but has a large Hindu majority, into a Hindu state. After the group founded the BJP as its political wing in 1980, renaming its original avatar the Jana Sangh, a fiery Modi rose through its ranks, becoming chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.
The next year, horrific violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims in Modi’s State. At a train station, Muslims surrounded a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, and the two groups clashed. The train was set on fire, and 58 passengers died. Many Hindus blamed Muslim agitators for the blaze, and Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim communities, beating people to death, raping women and burning homes. Over a period of days, more than 1,000 people were killed.
After years of investigations, no evidence has emerged to link Modi directly to these attacks. But questions linger about whether he took appropriate action to stop them; in some cases, the police stood by and did nothing. Modi has repeatedly said that he did what he could.
In Washington, the new Commission on International Religious Freedom took the opportunity to demonstrate that it sought to protect all religions, not just Christians. It held a rare public hearing on Capitol Hill about the anti-Muslim riots in India, taking vivid testimony from eyewitnesses. The members were struck by Modi’s ‘inaction’. “It was wrenching, and it was documented,” says one commission member, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, a Pakistani-American political scientist and former State Department official who was born in India.
Three years later, Modi applied for a visa to the US to speak to audiences in New York and Florida. He had emerged as a figure who could attract support for his party at home and among the Indian diaspora.
By then, Modi had also become an intensely polarising figure among Indian-Americans. Other Indian-American groups, including the Indian American Muslim Council, learned of Modi’s planned visit and began lobbying with the State Department, Congress and the sponsors of his speaking engagements to prevent him from appearing.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that Modi should be denied entry. The State Department agreed. Modi already held a tourist visa, but the State Department revoked it, citing the 1998 law on violations of religious freedom. “He was responsible for the performance of state institutions” at the time of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the US ambassador to India, David Mulford, explained.
Bush administration officials also didn’t see Modi as high-ranking enough to matter much. “At the time, he was not a national figure,” says Burns, the former senior State Department official. “He was not the prime minister of India or a cabinet official. He was a regional official, and what had happened [in Gujarat] was reprehensible.”
Denying Modi a visa hasn’t stopped him from speaking to US audiences. He has appeared often — not in person but via satellite uplinks from India. “The only value of the visa denial was symbolic,” says Ashley Tellis, an India specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It did not cut off his connectivity to the people he wanted to meet.”
But Modi was insulted and said that he wouldn’t apply for a visa again. US officials say, however, that he has tried indirectly. “From time to time, we would get feelers from people who knew him, or on his behalf, on whether we would grant a visa,” says Richard Boucher, who headed the State Department’s South Asia bureau from 2006 to 2009. “We would tell them, ‘No, nothing’s changed.’ “
Finally, two months ago, as Modi’s party — now running on a message of economic development and clean government — seemed poised to defeat the ruling Indian National Congress in national elections, the Obama administration signalled a change. US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell held a one-hour meeting with Modi, the first such meeting since his visa was denied in 2005.
The State Department now has some grounds to claim that Modi’s legal situation has changed since he was banned. Last year, an investigation approved by the Indian Supreme Court absolved Modi of complicity in the rioting. Based on that finding, a court in Gujarat found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
But if Modi becomes India’s prime minister, that fact by itself will be the main reason for the US to shift course and allow him to enter — not any greater US comfort with his past actions (and inactions).
“You cannot deny a visa to an Indian prime minister, for heaven’s sake. How could we conduct an important relationship?” said Tahir-Kheli. “But by the same token, I hope it will be an inclusive Modi, representing a country that has all kinds of religions and mindsets.”
This is an American perspective and only one American (of Pakistani origin) has been quoted in support of the author’s perception on how ordinary American citizens feel about Modi. We have information about evangelists and other lobbies working towards denying the Gujarat Chief Minister a visa to the United States