All five Indian American members of Congress will be in attendance when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate on Thursday, despite calls from some members to boycott his speech over alleged human rights abuses in India.
The five Indian American congressional representatives—all of whom are Democrats—include Ami Bera of California, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Ro Khanna of California, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, and Shri Thanedar of Michigan. Each of their congressional offices confirmed to TIME that they plan to attend the speech.
“I am attending all the events that I’ve been invited to with the Prime Minister because I think that this is a really important and nuanced discussion,” Jayapal, who serves as chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells TIME. “India is a critical partner of the United States as a country regardless of who the Prime Minister is.”
Their attendance highlights how Washington is expected to welcome Modi even as more than 70 lawmakers this week signed a letter—co-authored by Jayapal—calling on President Joe Biden to bring up the Prime Minister’s controversial record on religious intolerance, press freedom, internet access, and the targeting of civil society groups when the two leaders meet.
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Meanwhile, two of the three Muslim members of Congress, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, have confirmed they will boycott Modi’s upcoming joint address to Congress. A spokesperson for the third, Rep. André Carson of Indiana, declined to provide an answer when asked about his attendance plans. Tlaib said in a statement that Modi’s “long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims and religious minorities, and censoring journalists is unacceptable.” Omar will host an event at the Capitol following Modi’s address with human rights experts, religious freedom leaders, and other members of Congress on Indian policy issues. “Prime Minister Modi’s government has repressed religious minorities, emboldened violent Hindu nationalist groups, and targeted journalists/human rights advocates with impunity,” Omar said in a statement.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also plans to skip Modi’s speech, her spokesperson tells TIME. On Thursday, Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York also announced they would not attend.
Modi’s three-day trip to the U.S. comes amid a push for cooperation in defense, clean energy, and trade between the two countries that U.S. presidents have described as the world’s oldest and largest democracies. The White House also sees the visit as a potential opportunity to cement a partnership to counter China’s growing influence.
But the visit—only the third state visit offered by Biden so far in his presidency—underscores the challenge of strengthening ties with a nation that some activists fear is losing its core democratic values. The controversial Indian leader—who is poised to win his third term next year—has been accused of aggressively championing a Hindu-nationalist agenda that critics say reinvents the idea of India as a pluralist, secular democracy to a religious, nationalist autocracy. Under Modi’s leadership, India has passed discriminatory laws that have alienated nearly 200 million Muslims; squashed dissent by jailing journalists, activists, and civil society organizations; and exercised judicial influence against his political opponents (notably, Rahul Gandhi, the de facto leader and scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family at the helm of the opposition Congress Party).
The State Department’s 2022 religious freedom report highlighted significant human rights issues including credible reports of unlawful and arbitrary killings and extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents. A U.S. panel also recommended that the State Department designate India among others as “countries of particular concern” for violating religious freedoms. (The Indian government dismissed the report as being “based on misinformation and flawed understanding.”)
Human rights groups and some experts worry that geopolitics will overshadow human rights issues during Modi’s visit to the U.S. “Since this is a state visit, it has to be positive,” says Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “If the topic is broached by the U.S. side, it’s not going to be something that they’re going to push very much because this is such an important, prestigious type of diplomatic activity. And Washington can’t afford for there to be any awkward moments, even in a private setting.”
Jayapal said Biden has not responded to her letter urging him to bring up U.S. concerns about democratic backsliding and attacks on Muslims and other minorities in India. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that Biden will not “lecture” Modi on the subject.
Still, several Indian American members of Congress told TIME they believe it’s possible to strengthen ties with India while urging Modi to uphold human rights. “I don’t think they’re exclusive,” Jayapal says. “The fundamentals of a strong relationship are rooted in the ability to raise these issues and concerns. I think it’s completely appropriate for us as a country to raise those concerns.”
A spokesperson for Khanna, chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, said he believes the U.S. “can show respect to the democratically elected leadership in India while still speaking out about American values.” The spokesperson added: “He will attend the speech along with all his Indian American colleagues in Congress in the hopes of furthering a strategic partnership and fostering a productive dialogue about human rights and religious equality.”
Bera, the longest-serving Indian American in Congress, said in an interview that the invitation to Modi was “more focused on the geopolitical partnership between the two countries” with regard to economic relations and defense, but noted that he also worries about India’s trajectory. “India was based on this secular identity, where 800 million plus Hindus could live side by side with 200 million plus Muslims,” he says. “If India loses that secular identity, then it also changes who she is as a country.”
-With reporting by Yasmeen Serhan/London
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