Evangelicals, Indian expats behind US visa ban on Modi

Republicans who led the Modi visa ban in 2005, are now among his strongest supporters

Evangelicals, Indian expats behind US visa ban on Modi

In March 2005, the United States denied a visa to Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, now the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in next year’s Indian elections.

The visa was denied because of Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims. But it came about from a highly unusual coalition made up of Indian-born activists, evangelical Christians, Jewish leaders and Republican members of Congress concerned about religious freedom around the globe.

I had a front-row seat to these events as they unfolded. I worked in Washington. DC, from 2003 to 2011, mostly at Amnesty International and in the United States Congress, and I was a part of the campaign to deny Modi a visa. In 1996, Nina Shea, the director of the Centre for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, organised a summit sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that represents 42,000 Evangelical Churches. At the conclusion of the event, the delegates pledged their collective efforts to “take appropriate action to combat the intolerable religious persecution now victimising fellow believers and those of other faiths.”

The timing was perfect. Two years earlier, Republicans had taken a majority of seats in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952, and the new batch of Republican Congress members were eager to see that protection of Christians be a central part of United States foreign policy. The result was the International Religious Freedom Act, which Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, introduced in March 1998 to wide, bipartisan support.

Though Wolf’s original vision called for sanctions on countries that violated religious freedom, that idea ran into resistance from corporations that worked in countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

In the new piece of legislation, most of the language on sanctions was dumped. However, one clause would carry over and would later prove fateful to Modi. Section 604 of the new legislation read: “Any alien who, while serving as a foreign official, was responsible or directly carried out, at any time during the preceding 24-month period, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, as defined in Section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act 1998 and the spouse and children, if any, are inadmissible.”

Soon after the passage of the law, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government-funded agency, was created. Many of the initial commissioners had strong evangelical leanings, but when Felice D Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s human rights programme, was selected as a commissioner in 2001, she decided to widen the panel’s scope to other religions.

In the fall of 2002, an Indian-born, Washington-based evangelical Christian named John Prabhudoss led a delegation to riot-affected Ahmedabad that included two Republican congressmen, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and  Wolf. Another person on the trip was Raju Rajagopal, an Indian-born retired health professional based in Berkeley, Calif.
“It was unimaginable what we saw in Gujarat,”  Rajagopal said. “People in Gujarat told us that Indian Americans were sending loads of money to groups like the RSS and the VHP” that, he argued, had a role in fuelling the violence,  Rajagopal said.

In early 2005,  Prabhudoss learned that the Asian American Hotel Owners Association was sponsoring a conference in south Florida in late March 2005 and had invited then-Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the TV talk show host Chris Matthews and  Modi. The association was created in 1989 as a trade group for hotel owners in the United States, and today there are 10,000 members representing 22,000 hotels. The group’s chairman, Nash Patel, said at the time that 98 per cent of the group’s members had roots in Gujarat.

Pressure group

Soon after Modi’s United States visit was announced, 41 South Asian groups across the country came together to form the Coalition Against Genocide. On Feb. 24, 2005, a letter organised by the group was signed by over 100 professors and sent to the hotel association, asking them to rescind Modi’s invitation. Another pressure group flooded Matthews with letters.

On March 16, 2005, House Resolution 160 was introduced in Congress, condemning  Modi “for his actions to incite religious persecution.” On March 18, the State Department denied Modi a visa. Three days later, the United States ambassador to India, David C Mulford, said, “This decision applies to Narendra Modi only. It is based on the fact that, as head of the state government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, he was responsible for the performance of state institutions at that time.”

 Modi called the visa denial in 2005 “an attack on Indian sovereignty” and raised the question, “Will India also consider what America has done in Iraq when it processes visa applications of Americans coming to India?” Despite the success in denying Modi a United States visa, disillusionment quickly set in for Rajagopal, the retired California businessman who accompanied Prabhudoss to Gujarat in 2002. “The frustrating thing was that the visa denial was probably the only thing really dealt a blow to Modi,” he said. “I just wish it had been brought about by a large, secular coalition. I am not so sure that is true. The thing that made a difference was the right-wing evangelical support.”

 Prabhudoss acknowledged that evangelical support played a big part but said that Modi was denied a visa for other reasons as well. “Back then, we were working without any opposition. It was incredible, really,” Prabhudoss said. “The Modi supporters were there, but they sat that one out. And back then, the Indian lobby was not powerful like they are today. You could speak against Modi and there were no political consequences. Today, it is a completely different story.”

Joseph Grieboski, the founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Virginia, who also was deeply involved in trying to block Modi’s visit, said that the mood has shifted now. “When the US denied Modi a visa in 2005, it was like the U.S. denying a visa to the governor of Iowa — no offense to Gujarat,” he said. “The US did not see it as a big deal. And back then, it seemed clear to everyone in this town that Modi was involved in the riots. Now the picture is fuzzier, and many are intrigued by Modi.”

While Republicans led the opposition to Modi’s visa in 2005, there are now Republicans among Modi’s strongest supporters. When the Tea Party candidate Joe Walsh campaigned in Illinois for Congress, he promised he would push the United States to grant Modi a visa. (He lost to his Democratic challenger, Tammy Duckworth.)
In March, three Republicans members of Congress visited Modi in Gujarat, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. The trip for Ms McMorris Rodgers and her husband cost $15,000 and was paid for by the co-founder of the National Indian American Public Policy Institute, Shalli Kumar, a supporter of Modi based in Chicago.

But the opposition to Modi continues to be led by Republicans as well, in particular by Pitts and Wolf. In November, Pitts introduced House Resolution 417, which urges the United States government to continue to deny  Modi a visa. Notably, the resolution has 28 co-sponsors, the majority of them Democrats.

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