A Conversation With Katrina Lantos Swett, on Religious Freedom in IndiaBy MAROOSHA MUZAFFAR
Few Indian politicians evoke dislike and admiration as intense as that inspired by Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Mr. Modi is the de facto prime ministerial candidate for India’s leading opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Mr. Modi has been remodeling himself as a pro-business, pro-development leader who can bring about economic growth and make difficult decisions. Yet the ghosts of the 2002 sectarian violence, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes under his watch in Gujarat, along with his continuing use of derogatory language to refer to India’s Muslims, has raised concerns about his political rise.
In 2005, the United States government denied Mr. Modi a diplomatic visa and revoked his existing tourist/business visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes a foreign government official who is responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for an American visa. The decision placed Mr. Modi in the company of, among others, associates of Slobodan Milosevic and an Indonesian Army general who was suspected of torture. Mr. Modi has been lobbying to have the decision reversed.
Maroosha Muzaffar spoke to Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan government commission that reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress about the commission’s insistence on keeping Mr. Modi off American soil.
On a recent panel, you requested the U.S. State Department to continue the visa ban on Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Mr. Modi is the de facto prime ministerial candidate for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party for the country’s national elections in 2014. How does the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom see these developments?
For the people of India, I think it is important for them to consider very carefully who it is who they want to be their next prime minister. It is no outside nation’s or no individual’s role to tell them who should be the next leader of India. But I think it is a bit of information that will help them as they go through that electoral process. It is our view and view of many others that Mr. Modi shall not be granted the privilege of U.S. visa because of the very serious doubts that remain and that hang over Mr. Modi relative to his role in the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat.
The International Religious Freedoms Act, under which we were created, provides very specifically for the requirement that our government should not issue visas to officials that are implicated in serious abuses of religious freedom rights. That provision absolutely applies in this instance. While it is impossible to project down the road, we feel it is important to stand up for the principle involved here, which is that really terrible things happened during his leadership in Gujarat. There are many, many unanswered questions that remain, there are at are many grave allegations, there are huge doubts.
Indian courts have not yet found any evidence of Mr. Modi’s involvement in the 2002 violence in Gujarat. You say that there are still some grave allegations, some doubts hanging over his role in the 2002 riots.
As you know, one of his ministers (Maya Kodnani) was recently convicted for her role in these events. Given the nature of the way the governments function, it is highly unlikely at the very least that this minister would have been engaged to the degree that she was without the knowledge, without the direction from Mr. Modi. There is of course the very damning sworn notarized affidavit of former deputy commissioner of police Sanjeev Bhatt, which is really an eyewitness account. He is not simply providing sworn testimony as to events that happened on the streets. His testimony is also regarding things that were said by Mr. Modi in his presence. There are very powerful letters that were signed by 65 members of the lower house and upper house and they cite a number of grave concerns.
And let’s set aside, just for a moment, whether or not Mr. Modi was directly complicit in the events of 2002. There is a lot to be troubled about what has happened since or what has failed to happen. Legal accountability, you know, when you think of the numbers that were killed, the incredible number of rapes, the vast displacement, the burning and trashing of property, there should have been by now significant numbers of people held legally accountable. We find that that really hasn’t happened.
There have been very few convictions. One of the things that concern us is that Mr. Modi seems more concerned with rehabilitating his own reputation than with providing recompense and rehabilitation for the surviving victims of those terrible events. Where are the reparations that have been paid? Where are the public apologies, public accounting for what went on? These to me are all indications that to some degree we are seeing a very ambitious man more focused on his political rehabilitation than on really righting the wrongs.
I think there is a difference between whether or not one can be held legally liable or accountable for something and going so far as to say a clean bill of health, a clean chit. Certainly in our system of justice you can be found not guilty, which is not the same thing as found innocent.
Under these circumstances we should follow our laws, which say that we should not give a visa. Of course Mr. Modi wants us to reverse our position because that would be part of his rehabilitation process. But perhaps it would be more instructive for observers and analysts and voters in India to have that piece of information as they evaluate whether or not he is the man who should lead India.
Your critics say that International Religious Freedom Act is selectively invoked.
India is a great democracy and we tend to expect more of democracies than we do of dictatorships. That is not to say that your question is not a valid one. But I do see it as a compliment to India that we hold India to a very high standard because India is the world’s largest democracy. I would say that maybe India is held to that higher standard because you have shown that you embrace the values that we embrace in terms of democracy.
Are the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the State Department on the same page? A spokesman for the State Department said in April that Mr. Modi is welcome to apply for a U.S. visa. What does that mean?
I think it was an intentionally ambiguous statement. It is one of the reasons we went public with a (November 2012) letter to Secretary Clinton asking for continuation of the decision to deny a visa to Mr. Modi to influence the State Department. We are independent but we work closely with the State Department, especially its international religious freedom office. But there are plenty of policy conclusions where we come down in a somewhat different place from the State Department.
What motivates the State Department to ignore some of your recommendations?
The State Department has a more difficult job than we do because they are balancing American security interests, American commercial interests, American cultural interests, American exchange interests, a whole range of diplomatic interests, and one of the things that they are putting into that mix is the defense of our fundamental values, human rights and religious freedom and other such things. Because of its much larger portfolio the State Department cannot be as single-minded as we are.
After the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be on the “countries of particular concern” list (a global list of the worst offenders of religious freedom) but the State Department ignored it. In your latest report, you have placed India on the Tier 2 list of countries, which includes Afghanistan, Russia, Cuba, Nigeria, Laos, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
India merits being on the Tier 2 list for the state of its religious freedom.
It is sometimes frustrating to see some of the countries we are critical of on the grounds of religious freedom. For instance, in Burma, there has been some real progress and real development in terms of democracy and many other criteria, but there have been some disconcerting developments when it comes to religious freedom and sectarian violence.
Is it true that the State Department does not view the 2005 visa denial and revocation as a religious freedom issue?
Well, that’s one dimension of it. Obviously what happened in 2002 in Gujarat was sectarian violence on a really massive scale. I don’t think you can say that that wasn’t a religious issue. It was a religious issue and the 2005 visa denial harks back to that. I am not quite sure why they would have said that. There is no ignoring of the central role of the violence and the destruction that took place. And there is no avoiding the sectarian nature of it. It was by all accounts religiously based.
If Mr. Modi were to apply for a visa now, what are the chances of the U.S. Department of State denying him the visa?
I don’t think I am in a position to answer that question, and I think if you ask the State Department the same question, you will get a polite “no comment.” I would say there probably are different camps within the State Department. This is being debated in a lively way. If you go to the Congress, you will find members of Congress who are saying we have got to give this guy a visa, and you will find an equal number of congressmen saying that it would really be a betrayal of our values.
In the U.S. Congress, are the supporters and opponents of Mr. Modi’s visa divided along party lines?
I don’t think it breaks along partisan lines. I think it breaks down along which congressmen prioritize human rights versus who don’t. We met recently Cynthia Lummis and she has asked for more information. Not only did I testify before her and made a strong case for why the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has taken the position it had on it, but after that she did request additional information from us. She said something to the effect that somebody is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. I pointed out that we were not talking about us passing a judgment of guilt or innocence, but whether or not we would extend a privilege. To get a visa to this country is not a right but a privilege. It is not a matter of standards of proofs in a court of law but whether or not the privilege should be extended to someone.
Maroosha Muzaffar, a Fulbright scholar at New York University, is interning with The New Republic in Washington. Ms. Muzaffar has worked as a reporter for The Indian Express in New Delhi.