A decision by the U.S. ambassador to India to meet with a popular but controversial Hindu nationalist politician in Gandhinagar is fueling a war of words here at home between Muslim and anti-genocide groups on one side and an array of pro-Hindu groups on the other.
On Thursday, Ambassador Nancy Powell met with the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in the most high-profile encounter between Modi, a Hindu nationalist leader, and a U.S. official since he was barred from traveling in the U.S. in 2005. The State Department revoked Modi's visa nine years ago because of accusations that he had done little to stop a spate of anti-Muslim violence in his region that killed some 1,500 people. But in recent months, blackballing Modi became untenable given his status as the front-runner to become India's next prime minister. That created a dilemma for the Obama administration and served as a vivid reminder of how events from more than a decade ago can still have repercussions years later.
"They should not have met at all," said Shaik Ubaid, a founder of the Coalition Against Genocide, a group that spreads awareness about the 2002 killings in Gujarat. "But I hope they at least talked about pogroms and concerns about religious freedom."
The rub on Modi is that many believe he approved or actively encouraged violence against Muslims in the 2002 riots. In 2012, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body, insisted that he not be issued another visa because of his role in the bloodshed. Modi and his supporters vehemently deny the allegations and point to an Indian Supreme Court inquiry that found no evidence to prosecute him. As the prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ahead in most polls, he is favored to win enough seats to form a government after India's general elections in May. For groups in the U.S. dedicated to strengthening ties between the two countries, the meeting was long overdue.
"This move is only positive," Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu America Foundation, told The Cable. "U.S. policy should be one of meeting all parties who could potentially lead the country. The largest and oldest democracies need to have a strong relationship."
Shukla said it was hypocritical of the U.S. to single out Modi for religious intolerance under the Immigration and Nationality Act while other more malevolent foreigners went unpunished. "Our stand is about parity in U.S. law," she said, pointing to examples of U.S. engagement with Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bengali leaders accused of religious violence.
Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, agreed. He warned that the U.S. risked being seen as meddling in India's internal affairs. "He's the duly-elected leader of a state of 60 million people," he said. "It is not our calling in the U.S. to interfere with India's electoral process. When we take a position on someone, it gets amplified and used by Modi's opponents."
That's exactly what the State Department wants to avoid as it navigates the sensitive terrain between Modi-watchers in the U.S.. "This is simply a meeting happening on the ground in India," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki during a press briefing. "It's not a reflection of anything else than outreach to a broad range of officials."
In a short readout of the meeting, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi said that Powell and Modi discussed the importance of the "U.S.-India relationship, regional security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment in India."
For Modi critics, the statement was wholly unsatisfying. "I'm disappointed," said Biju Mathew, co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate. As one of the original activists that successfully lobbied the State Department to revoke Modi's visa in 2005, Mathew said Washington owes the victims of the Gujarat riots an explanation for the meeting.
"It's quite common practice for officials to meet with politicians of prominent political parties in any country, but that is not the issue," said Mathew. "It's disappointing that there was no warning of the meeting and no explanation as to what transpired during the gathering. For instance: Which human rights issues were brought up?"
For the State Department, a number of thorny issues remain. Technically, it would not be difficult for Foggy Bottom to resolve Modi's travel status. Although the department originally determined that Modi was ineligible for travel under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it's not bound by that earlier decision. "Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told The Cable in December. "That review will be grounded in U.S. law." However, a Congressional aide familiar with the matter says Modi is demanding assurances from the State Department that if he re-applies, his application won't be rejected.
"At some point, the State Department has to acknowledge that Modi has never been convicted by any Indian court of wrongdoing," said the aide. "That's what Modi wants to hear."
Doing so risks inflaming the leader's vocal opponents in the U.S. But given the importance of the economic ties between the two countries -- $100 billion worth of trade each year -- it's unlikely that the State Department will let a decade-old dispute disrupt relations should Modi become the next prime minister. "The United States and India are moving forward with a strategic partnership that is broad and deep," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.