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Theatre of the absurd to deny Modi a US visa

By Aseem Shukla
Last updated on: December 20, 2012 14:24 IST
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The move by four US Congressmen to deny Narendra Modi a US visa is a disrespect to India's free and fair ballot and even its Supreme Court, says Aseem Shukla.

Four legislators stood at a podium on another unseasonably warm December day in the shadows of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sombre and stern, they took turns delivering blistering monologues into microphones that outnumbered the stray staffer milling about.

As America's attention sits riveted on a lame duck US Congress that should be consumed with the fiscal cliff, four Congressmen had time for this -- a theatre of the absurd.

Absurd, because the calumny they heaped were on a democratically elected leader thousands of miles away, Narendra Modi, over a visa to the United States that he covets not.

Absurd, because at issue is a tragedy ten years passed over which dozens have been sentenced and held accountable, but the Indian Supreme Court's Special Investigative Team absolved Modi of guilt.

And absurd, because in the ostensible goal of ostracising Modi, this act will likely play as another attack on Gujarati asmita, or pride, and certainly not weaken his hand for the state elections.

It is telling that at Ground Zero in Gujarat, Modi's culpability in the aftermath of the Godhra train arson is a non sequitur during election season. Sonia Gandhi nor any Gujarat Congress party worker, even in the heat of the campaign, ever once recalled 2002, as the issue is dormant for Gujaratis.

But just as aspirational entities as Dalitistan, Khalistan, and Nagaland find life from time to time in the annals of the US Congressional Record, a mix of new and old actors in Congress fancy themselves jury and judge in the case of Modi and the theatre commences.

Even putting aside the terrible optics of American legislators disrespecting the free and fair democratic ballot in India, not to mention a fiercely independent judiciary that has convicted many -- but absolved Modi thus far -- for the riotous aftermath of Godhra, it is instructive to make note of the cast that rendered judgement.

Keith Ellison, Joe Pitts, Trent Franks and Frank Wolf are well known ideological and religious activists vis a vis India, and their history of engagement with Indian Americans speaks to motive.

Trent Franks (Republican, Arizona) is a far-right evangelical Christian conservative that most recently made news in joining the redoubtable Congresswoman of Minnesota, Michelle Bachmann, and only two others in calling for a sweeping investigation of the Muslim Brotherhood's insidious infiltration among American Muslims.

Working along with his long-time foreign policy advisor, Melody Divine, who serves on the board of the Dalit Freedom Network, a Colorado evangelical church based group, Franks routinely provides a Congressional forum to that group that ties caste-based discrimination directly to Hindu scriptures and promotes conversion to Christianity as the only solution.

And despite multiple requests from Hindu Americans, Franks refused to sign another Congressional letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton asking that American engagement with Pakistan be predicated upon ending ongoing persecution of Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas there.

An ideological soul mate to Franks, Pitts is another evangelical conservative who has made opposing not just Modi, but the Bharatiya Janata Party, specifically, a target of several Congressional hearings.

From inviting activist Teesta Setalvad -- whom the same Supreme Court SIT reportedly condemned for perjury by fabricating affidavits implicating Modi -- to Capitol Hill hearings and repeatedly co-sponsoring bills on behalf of Christian Dalit leaders, Pitts also trumpeted his hosting a film screening, India's Hidden Slavery, that was sponsored by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Perhaps Pitts faced his greatest embarrassment when his Indian agenda focused on Gujarat, Orissa, and Dalits began congealing with that of Dan Burton, that anti-India stalwart (who also signed the letter against Modi), and expanded to parroting the Pakistani view on India.

Those calls for a plebiscite in Kashmir, forming the Congressional Forum on Kashmir, and benedictions to erstwhile president Pervez Musharraf were the ones Pitts likely hoped to retract when the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed that after Burton, Pitts was the highest recipient of largesse from the Virginia-based, convicted Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agent, Ghulam Nabi Fai.

Modi may be a polarising figure in India, but what to say about that same visa-deprived Gujarati who manages to bring together onstage Trent Franks, whose rating is 100 percent, with Keith Ellison (Democrat, Minnesota) whose rates a meagre 8 percent?

Bipartisan unity -- however fleeting in Washington these days -- notwithstanding, the only Muslim in Congress, Ellison, bitterly opposed Franks' Muslim Brotherhood hunt. It was the hurt that Ellison tearfully conveyed that resonated with a Hindu American Foundation delegation, including Minnesotans, that met with him over two years.

The delegation hoped to find in Ellison a person with an understanding of political engagement as a religious minority. A potential ally in shared goals for a liberal society. But the encounters did not go well.

Two years ago, the Congressman opened his meeting with HAF with a direct query: "Are you affiliated with radical Hindu nationalist groups?" And he began with probing for ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Indian groups he considered 'Hindu radicals'.

The team of mostly American-born Hindu American lawyers, engineers, students, and business owners was stunned. What did their agenda of the separation of Church and State, liberalising of the religious worker visa, educating Americans about Hinduism, international human rights, and the like have to do with radicalism?

Had the Congressman presumed that South Asians identifying themselves as Hindus must be suspect of a hidden agenda?

Did he presume that Hindus in America must be tied in to socio-political realities in India?

The following year, it only got worse. Due to a 'scheduling conflict,' instead of the Congressman's office, the HAF delegation was escorted to the cafeteria to meet with a staffer.

This staffer, a former outreach director for the Indian Muslim Council, and blogger who often alleged Modi's direct involvement in the 2002 riots, blindsided the delegation with a grilling about the foundation's opposing a move by Indian Communist groups to cancel Sadhvi Ritambhara's US visa tour raising money for her Vatsalyagram charity project.

Ellison's activist not only criticised HAF's positions, but implied dark affiliations and sympathies to violence against Muslims in India. Several of the HAF delegates stormed off in disgust, as did the staffer, and HAF found itself combating a false narrative rife with innuendo and accusations.

And what to make of the array of organisations that orchestrated the event? From the Forum of Inquilabi Leftists to the Association of South Asian Progressives, from Coalition Against Communalism to Friends of South Asia, the potpourri of self-professing Indian radical groups joined with the Indian Muslim Council and the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations to push an agenda to overrule the Indian judicial system and perpetuate a visa ban on one man.

Is a decade-old riot the only contemporary human rights issue deserving a coalition of the concerned?

Will these Indian leftists be called out for doling out the morally dubious imprimatur of legitimacy to the anti-India and anti-Hindu antics of a Burton, or Pitts or Franks?

Hypocrisy is never a lonely noun on Capitol Hill. The United States protects the leader of Rwanda despite his support of genocidal Tutsi rebels in the Congo. Chinese leaders enjoy visits here despite their violent religious persecution of Tibetans, and Burmese leaders got a President Barack Obama visit in spite of that government's summary executions and rape of the Indian-origin Rohingya people.

For Theatre du Modi, the absurd first act in Washington is over. Shall the next act be left to the voters in Gujarat and the Supreme Court of India?

Dr Aseem Shukla, MD, is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation and a pediatric urologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are his own.

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Aseem Shukla