Theatre of the absurd to deny Modi a US visa

published on December 21, 2012
Aseem Shukla
(Co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation and a pediatric urologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.)

[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?

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