Communal violence in New Delhi casts a pall over Trump’s triumphant India yatra

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  • By Aziz Haniffa Feb 29, 2020
Communal violence in New Delhi casts a pall over Trump's triumphant India yatra

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even before the U.S. and India could exult and bask in the afterglow of President Trump’s triumphant 36-hour whirlwind yatra to India on Feb. 24-25, replete with all of its pomp and pageantry and a surfeit of symbolism, the wanton and hate-filled communal violence in New Delhi, has cast a pall over the visit.

Democratic presidential candidates, led by the front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders slammed Trump for his silence on the violence that erupted even as he was being felicitated in Delhi, while several U.S. lawmakers, civil rights and advocacy groups from the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), strongly condemned the blood-letting that has killed over 40 people and injured hundreds more, that apparently was precipitated by the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the protests that have been continuing, including the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha over the legislation’s perceived repercussions to the country’s minority’s Muslims, which has raised the ire of the Hindutva groups and led to this violent backlash.

Sanders reacting to the violence in Delhi and the muted response by Trump at a press conference on Feb. 25, where he said, “As far as the individual attacks, I heard about it, but I didn’t discuss that with him (Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” and, “That’s up to India,” said this was “a failure of leadership.”

On Feb. 26, Sanders, who’s barreling towards the Democratic presidential nomination like a freight train, comfortably leading in the polls in California and Texas — the country’s most populous states — tweeted, “Over 200 million Muslims call India home. Widespread anti-Muslim mob violence has killed at least 27 and injured many more. Trump responds by saying ‘That’s up to India’. This is a failure of leadership on human rights.”

A day before Sanders reacted, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), also a Democratic presidential candidate, sharing a BBC report and retweeting it, said, “Violence against peaceful protesters is never acceptable.”

While acknowledging that “it’s important to strengthen relationships with democratic partners like India,” Warren echoed the report that at the same time “we must be able to speak truthfully about our values, including religious freedom and freedom of expression — and violence against peaceful protesters is never acceptable.”

Meanwhile two other influential senators, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, and time-tested friends and staunch supporters of the U.S.-India relationship, also expresse d grave concern over the violence in Delhi in a joint statement on Feb. 26.

“We are alarmed by the recent violence in New Delhi. We continue to support an open dialogue on issues of significant concern in order to advance our vital long-term relationship,” they said.

Communal violence in New Delhi casts a pall over Trump's triumphant India yatra

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said that he was “deeply concerned about the impact and consequences resulting from the shocking communal violence that unfolded in Delhi this week, particularly as it relates to India’s democracy and human rights.”

He noted that the “clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which I have previously warned threatens India’s long history of secularism and democratic values. Those clashes unfortunately spiraled into wider communal violence that killed dozens and injured hundreds more. “

 Menendez, urged the “Indian authorities to step in and defend the communities being targeted in Delhi to prevent the violence from escalating further,” and said, “ As the world’s largest democracy, the Indian government must do more to defend all of its citizens’ rights, including the right to peaceful protest.”

He also pilloried Trump, saying, “Likewise, President Trump’s failure to publicly voice concern about the clashes or express support for the human rights of all Indians during his visit to India is simply unacceptable.”

Menendez said, “The United States must be a leading voice in standing up for democratic values and human rights, including protection of religious minorities,” and added, “I urge the Trump Administration, and the rest of the international community, to condemn the violence in Delhi and press the Indian government to protect all persons in India regardless of their religion.”

Sanders’ key surrogates, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D.-Wash.) and Rashida Tlaib (D.-Mich.), also said they were horrified by the violence, and like Sanders pilloried Trump for his refusal to comment on the situation.

Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in Congress that boasts of nearly 150 members, said the “deadly surge of religious intolerance in India is horrifying”.

“Democracies should not tolerate division and discrimination or promote laws that undermine religious freedom,” she said in a tweet, adding that the “world is watching”.

Last year, Jayapal, a high profile member of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a Congressional resolution urging India to end the restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir and preserve religious freedom for all residents, and this resolution has garnered over 40 co-sponsors but not been taken up for a hearing by any Congressional subcommittee.

Tlaib tweeted, “This week, Trump visited India but the real story should be the communal violence targeting Muslims in Delhi right now. We cannot be silent as this tide of anti-Muslim violence continues across India.”

Interestingly, BJP’s General Secretary, B.L. Santhosh, apparently incensed by Sanders’ tweet castigating Trump for his silence on the Delhi violence, responded with a tweet of his own that contained an implied threat to interfere in his presidential campaign, which he then quickly deleted.

In his tweet on Feb. 27, Santhosh warned Sanders, “However much ever neutral we wish to be you compel us to play a role in Presidential elections. Sorry to say so…But you are compelling us.”

One Indian online news portal, The Wire quipped that “the BJP leader may have channeled his inner (Russian President Vladimir) Putin but threatening to interfere with democratic elections in another country is no joke.”

U.S. intelligence agencies had accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, and Democrats have argued that this was what helped Trump to get elected.

Last month, The New York Times reported that intelligence officials had informed the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians were at it again and were trying to help Trump in the 2020 presidential elections too.

But Sanders also acknowledged a few days later that he had also been informed by intelligence officials that the Russian were intent on helping him too to secure the Democratic nomination, ostensibly to help Trump, who strongly believes he can rout Sanders in the Nov. election and would rather run against him than former Vice President Joe Biden.

Several other U.S. lawmakers, the majority of them progressives like Jayapal, also condemned the violence in Delhi, with Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) descrbing the violence as a “tragic failure of moral leadership”.

“We must speak out in the face of threats to human rights in India,” he said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), said he too was “horrified by the deadly violence unfolding in India, all fueled by religious hatred and fanaticism.”

“Liberal democracies must protect religious freedom and pluralism, and avoid the path of discrimination and bigotry,” he said.

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tx.) said that “a democracy is only made stronger by its inclusion and respect for the rights of minorities.”

“India is the largest secular democracy in the world. This violence and suppression of Muslims’ civil liberties undermines India’s values and risks a wider conflict,” he added.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted, “I condemn attacks against Muslims in India, and reject violence, bigotry, and religious intolerance. The US State Department should too.”

In its only reaction thus far, the Trump administration through its point person for South Asia in the State Dept. Alice Wells, offered up a cautious and circumspect tweet.

Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs urged India to respect the right to peaceful assembly and called on all sides to refrain from violence.

In her tweet, showing hardly any daylight between that of the Trump administration and Prime Minister Modi, Wells said, “We echo (Modi’s) call for calm and normalcy and urge all parties to maintain peace, refrain from violence and respect the right of peaceful assembly.”

All of these lawmakers, as did Sanders, Warren and Tlaib, also attached the international and mainstream newspapers reportage on the violence, including the New York Times and the Washington Post to their tweets, while the much respected policy analyst and former Reagan and Bush administration official Richard N Hass, who heads the influential Council on Foreign Relations, said the reason for India’s relative success has been that its large Muslim minority saw itself as Indian.

“But this is at risk owing to govt attempts to exploit identity politics for political advantage,” he warned.

NeeraTanden, close friend and confidante of former First Lady and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, also got into the act, saying “the violence against Muslims in India is horrifying and destroys India’s role as a beacon for democracy in Asia.”

Tanden, who heads the progressive D.C. think tank, the Center for American Progress, said, “The Modi government’s actions have created this climate and it must put an end to this.”

She bemoaned that “ India as we know it is changing for the worse before our eyes.”

On Feb. 26, the USCIRF also urged the Indian government to take swift action for the safety of its citizens.

Expressing “grave concern” over the violence, the independent, bipartisan federal entity commissioned by the U.S. Congress,said the Indian government should provide protection to people regardless of their faith amid reports of attack on Muslims.

Earlier, it had tweeted its alarm over reports of “deadly mob violence targeting Muslims in New Delhi,” and called on the Modi government to rein in the mob and protect religious minorities.

Later in the day, USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins, former president of the conservative Family Research Council, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.)said, “The ongoing violence we are witnessing in Delhi and the reported attacks against Muslims, their homes and shops, and their houses of worship are greatly disturbing,” and added, “ One of the essential duties of any responsible government is to provide protection and physical security for its citizens, regardless of faith. We urge the Indian government to take serious efforts to protect Muslims and others targeted by mob violence.”

USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava, the only South Asian American member of the Commission, who is Hindu American, said, “The brutal and unchecked violence growing across Delhi cannot continue.”

She said, “The Indian government must take swift action to ensure the safety of all of its citizens,” and lamented, “Instead, reports are mounting that the Delhi police have not intervened in violent attacks against Muslims, and the government is failing in its duty to protect its citizens.”

“These incidents are even more concerning in the context of efforts within India to target and potentially disenfranchise Muslims across the country, in clear violation of international human rights standards,” Bhargava added.

In its 2019 report, the USCIRF had classified India as a “Tier 2” country for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious standard for designations as a country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act.

The USCIRF also announced that it would hold a hearing next week Mar. 4 on how citizenship laws in countries like India and Myanmar are leveraged to deny the religious minorities legal protection, making them vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and mass atrocities.

It said, “Witnesses will discuss how citizenship laws are used to target religious minorities, particularly in Burma (Myanmar) and India, and will highlight the importance of the atrocity prevention framework for understanding the potential consequences of these laws.”

The USCIRF said, “With widespread protests in recent months in India in response to the CAA and a proposed National Register of Citizens, however, citizenship laws as a tool to target religious minorities is receiving much needed international attention”

Pointing out that “this phenomenon has a long-standing precedent with such measures as the 1982 Citizenship Law in Burma stripping the Rohingya of their rights as citizens,” it argued, “Without citizenship rights, minority communities are left to face further persecution and violence by both governments and non-state actors. In particular, government efforts to strip religious minorities of their citizenship can be a key predictor of mass atrocities.”

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Indian-American Muslim Council (IAMC) also issued statements condemning the violence.

Suhag Shukla, executive director of HAF, said,“We strongly condemn the violence, loss of life, and destruction of places of worship in India this week. There is no religious, historical, or political justification possible for what is happening in New Delhi.”

She said, “Hindu Americans stand for peace, pluralism, democracy, equal rights, and the rule of law here at home in the United States, in India, and anywhere in the world,” and noted, “Those people battling in the streets — throwing stones, acid, brandishing firearms, setting fire to businesses and places of worship — are all violating the law.”

Shukla said, “The perpetrators, no matter the religious community to which they belong, should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We urge Indian law enforcement officers to uphold their duty to protect the public and better maintain law and order. And we urge all those making inflammatory statements to take stock of the destructive impact of their words and cease.”

In a lengthy and strong statement, HAF — which comprises Generation X Hindu American professionals, who are doctors and lawyers, active on Capitol Hill- — and has often been accused of being an Hindutva organization and a front for its various manifestations, said, “The protests and violence in India over the last few weeks have triggered a renewed need for greater understanding and dialogue among religious community leaders, civil society, and Indian government officials, consistent with India’s long tradition of dialogue and pluralism. Media, non-governmental organizations, and observers from all communities must understand their role and duty in informing rather than inciting the citizenry, in defusing this tragic situation.”

Shukla said, “Hindu Americans have faith that through frank and honest dialogue, respect for rule of law, and the upholding of the rights and freedoms of all India’s citizens, this violence can be both be stopped now, as well as be prevented in the future.”

The IAMC in its statement, urged the “international community to call out India for its relentless attacks on minorities and marginalized communities.”

“The latest spate of violence in Delhi is a harbinger of things to come under an avowed Hindutva administration that is violating human rights and religious freedom at a pace rarely seen in history,” it warned.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, called on the international community “to condemn India’s anti-Muslim citizenship law, which makes it easier for migrants of every religion except Islam to become Indian citizens.”

 It said, “Peaceful protests against the discriminatory law by hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims, students, academics, and human rights activists have resulted in killings and mass violence by mainly Hindu mobs and law enforcement authorities.”

CAIR’s national executive director Nihad Awad said, “We are once again witnessing an explosion of violence targeting a religious minority and the world stands silent.”

He said, “The international community, including the United States, must speak out against the growing sectarian attacks in India fueled by anti-Muslim legislation and hate rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of Indian society.”

“The timing of President Trump’s visit to India and his silence on anti-Muslim Indian legislation only added fuel to the fire,” Awad said.

The vice chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC) George Abraham, said, “We express our serious concern over the ongoing violence in East Delhi that has killed 40 people or more and destroyed businesses, homes, and livelihoods of scores of people in the last few days.”

He said, “The inaction by the Delhi police is deeply troubling,” and called on the Indian Government “to take stern action to ensure the security of all its citizens.”

Mohinder Singh Gilzian, president of IOC, USA said, “In a democracy, people have the right to protest peacefully and by allowing religious zealots with extremist views to roam around freely killing people and destroying properties, the Government appears have abdicated its responsibility.”

“The main responsibility of the Central Government is to enforce laws to ensure order and stability, and the Modi government has failed on both counts,” he said.Gilzian added.

Rajendar Dichpally, general secretary of IOC, also asserted that that the riots were a failure on the part of the government and hoped that “the Modi Government would concentrate on reviving the economy and addressing the issue of unemployment, especially among the educated instead of raking up divisive issues.”

He predicted that India could “achieve progress only when there is peace, and all communities work together.”

But the Ministry of External Affairs pushed back, noting that the law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy.

MEA spokesman, Raveesh Kumar, said, “Our law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy. Senior representatives of the government have been involved in that process. The prime minister has publicly appealed for peace and brotherhood. We would urge that irresponsible comments are not made at this sensitive time.”

He asserted that “it is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy where the Constitution provides protection of religious freedom, and where democratic governance and rule of law further promote and protect fundamental rights.”

Kumar said that India had “seen comments made by U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, sections of the media and a few individuals regarding recent incidents of violence in Delhi,” which he noted are “factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue.”