Opinion: The “Howdy Modi” event is drawing criticism for welcoming the Indian prime minister amid human rights issues plaguing his country.
When the NRG stadium in Houston opens its doors Sunday morning to welcome Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his estimated 50,000 supporters, about 8 million Kashmiris will have spent 48 days in captivity, nearly 2 million people in India’s north-eastern state of Assam will have spent 22 days scrambling for papers to prove their citizenship, unemployment in India will have been at a 45-year high, and minorities in India will have faced years feeling stripped of their existence in a place they call home.
As the morning wears on, the world will witness, on television and computer screens, one of the largest events ever held in the U.S. for a foreign leader. The moment will be a proud one for the Indian-American community that has been waiting for its long-due recognition on the American stage. When President Donald Trump, who will be in attendance, gets engulfed in the famous Modi embrace, the exercise will be complete: India will have arrived as an important player in global geopolitics.
Houston, too, will bask in the glory of an event that promises to strengthen ties between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies. But amid this euphoric brouhaha, it should be noted that Modi, one of the most divisive world leaders of our times, is in complete contradiction with the pluralistic idea of Houston.
Houston is often touted as being the most diverse city in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of the area’s 6 million residents were born outside of the U.S. More than 145 languages are spoken in the city. Considered among the most exciting culinary cities in the world, Houston’s restaurants offer sprawling menus from more than 70 countries and American regions.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a political offshoot of the Rashtriya Swamsevek Sangh (RSS), a far-right, paramilitary organization founded in 1925. Inspired by Adolf Hitler, RSS imagined a Hindu nation, free of Muslims and other minorities. The outfit was banned for a few years after a former member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for his pro-Muslim views. Later, Modi himself started his public life in the RSS.
“Howdy Modi,” while being celebrated as a non-partisan, cultural event, is very much a political one. “It is an event organized by U.S. affiliates of the RSS and the BJP,” said Pieter Friedrich, a South Asian affairs analyst who made a speech earlier this week at Houston City Council hoping to stop the rally. “These organizations push a regressive, ethno-nationalist agenda of turning India into a Hindu nation where non-Hindus are treated as foreigners and cleansed from society. Ideologically, they have much in common with the white supremacy that motivates people like the El Paso shooter,” he added.
NRG stadium, home to football games, concerts, and the Rodeo, is located on Kirby Drive just inside the inner loop of Houston. Not too far from the stadium are Houston’s renowned universities and medical institutions where people from across the world converge. The NRG neighborhood is a largely residential one with a few shopping centers. South Asians, South East Asians, African Americans, and Latinx people are all represented.
In Houston, boundaries and borders dissolve. Roughly 70,000 South Asians live in the city, a place that many have come to see as a sort of melting pot, a refuge miles away from their home countries that are divided by conflict and strife.
“I’m outraged,” said Sehba Sarwar, transnational writer and activist who was born and raised in Pakistan and spent 25 years in Houston, where she founded and ran a social justice arts organization that was funded by the city and various local foundations. “The fact that one small pocket in Houston can create space for two men whose priorities are power, single race, and religion in the heart of the city is a contradiction to a city that is truly progressive and creates home for communities from all parts of the world.”
If Houston is reminiscent of the idea of India, it is because there are indeed similarities. The Indian Constitution recognizes cultural collectivities of this multilingual country, according equal rights to minorities. In the recent past, however, since Modi’s astronomical rise, efforts have been underway to carve out a unitary map of one nation, one language, one religion, and one culture.
In 2005, Modi was denied a U.S. visa on grounds of religious freedom, stemming from allegations that the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat took place on his watch when he was chief minister of the state. The ban stuck for nearly a decade.
Since he became prime minister in 2014, Modi has visited the U.S. twice, once at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014, and in Silicon Valley in 2016. Both events saw an attendance of more than 20,000 people. Texas, with its large and influential Indian-American population, doesn’t come as a surprising destination for his third appearance. There is also an economic element at play: India is Houston’s 10th largest trading partner.
Critics see Modi’s visit to Houston as a PR exercise designed to make the case to his domestic fans that he has international approval that other prime ministers have not had. “The fans love to hear that. But other prime ministers have visited the U.S. and even without staging such shows have engaged in the serious business of international relations,” said Mumbai-based writer Dilip D’Souza who lived in Austin for a decade in the 1980s.
The Howdy Modi event is being pitted as a moment for the Indian diaspora to shine. But as India plummets into religious and political chaos engendered by Hindu fundamentalism, supporting Modi only lends legitimacy to his actions. In Houston, protests are being planned on the sidelines of the event by minority groups. What is needed right now are not more accolades but a questioning, both at home and abroad, of what Modi and the BJP really stand for.
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