For nine days, Pieter Friedrich starved himself to get his congressman’s attention.
Drawing from his own Christian tradition of prayer and fasting and the Indian political tactic of satyagraha, the activist and journalist fasted from July 27 until August 5, aiming to convince US Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, to speak on the House floor about violence against Christians.
“He has not just a political responsibility, but a human responsibility to raise these issues,” said Friedrich, after he had abandoned his strike at the request of two Indian organizations. “I believe the only way he continues to refuse doing so is because he’s continuing to straddle the fence.”
The Christians whose plight Friedrich was demanding Khanna take responsibility for, however, were not Californians, but Indians living more than 7,000 miles away in Manipur. The fence he was accusing an American congressman of straddling was US policy toward Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his troubling history of Hindu nationalism.
From President Joe Biden to Indian American congressmembers like Khanna, American politicians are under increasing pressure to account for their courtship of Modi, the leader of a strategically important ally and the world’s largest democracy, while ignoring the Indian regime’s oppression of religious minorities.
Modi’s recent visit to Washington—where he met with President Biden, attended a state dinner, and addressed Congress—fully rehabilitated a figure who was refused a visa by the US State Department in 2015. At the time, Modi, then chief minister of the state of Gujarat, held a precarious position on the international stage after more than 900 of his constituents, mostly Muslims, died in religious riots. Since being elected prime minister in 2014, his record has improved, but marginalization of minority groups has continued.
In its 2023 annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom cited India for its “systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of religious freedom.” Open Doors ranked India No. 11 on its 2023 World Watch List and No. 4 on its countries where Christians face the most violence.
In May of this year in northern India, violence erupted in the Imphal Valley of Manipur after members of the mostly-Christian Kuki tribe protested a court order extending benefits to the Meiteis, an ethnic group many Kukis believe the government already favors. After the protest, Kuki were subjected to egregious violence and sexual crimes by Meitei mobs.
During Modi’s June visit to Washington, DC, Indian Americans, along with leaders of civil rights and interfaith movements, gathered in front of the White House to protest these attacks as well as the Indian government’s increased restrictions on the press and civil society.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been silent. … This is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple,” said Lien Gangte, a leader with the North American Manipur Tribal Association (NAMTA). “We call on every concerned individual to exercise their democratic rights by urging their elected representatives in the US [to] provide humanitarian aid and security.”
That same week, former US president Barak Obama warned the politician he once called his “friend” that if the government did not “protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart.”
Concurrently, in a letter to Biden, Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, along with 73 congressional colleagues, called on him to address the imperative of safeguarding human rights and democratic principles in India during his forthcoming meeting.
“A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access,” the letter stated.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren also signed the letter, though American politicians of Indian descent, notably Reps. Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Shri Thanedar, and Ro Khanna, refrained from endorsing it.
In July, a video of a mob parading and sexually assaulting two naked Kuki women during the atrocities from early May went viral on social media. Enraging those inside and outside of India, many slammed law enforcement agencies for failing to make a single arrest until after the footage ended up online.
Shortly after the video’s release, Indian American and Indian expats took to the streets in cities in Texas, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan. More than 700 Indian Christians rallied in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City to pray for peace and justice in Manipur. Protests have also been organized in Canada, Germany, and the UK.
Friedrich, a human rights advocate whose Twitter account has been banned twice in India for putting pressure on the Modi regime, has also urged American politicians of Indian heritage to speak out against rights violations in India.
“I feel like I’ve been called to be doing what I’m doing,” said Friedrich in an interview with Religion News Service. “These are people from my community, and I believe in the teaching that we are all one body in Christ. And whatever does harm to that body does harm to the whole.”
On July 30, midway through his hunger strike, Friedrich attended a Khanna town hall to confront him. A Kuki Christian woman also spoke about her family, who have been victims of the violent clashes.
“I believe that there should be absolutely no violence against any place of worship,” Khanna told the town hall audience. “I will be co-leading a bipartisan delegation in coordination with the State Department that will build on President Biden’s relationship with India, which is critical to American foreign policy interests.”
As the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans (CCIIA), Khanna has been working on US-India relations since his election in 2017. He has condemned Hindu nationalism, which many accuse Modi’s government of promoting, but in June, Khanna invited Modi to address the India caucus. Modi’s opponents say the invitation was a public affirmation. Khanna’s tepid official response to the violence in Manipur was considered another strike against him.
Khanna, a Hindu himself, has spoken out against Hindutva, the ideology of Narendra Modi and his party, as recently as 2019.
Not surprisingly, his comments earned the ire of right-wing Indian Americans who staged a protest accusing him of betraying his culture and identity and calling him “Hinduphobic.” Since then, he appears to have moderated his public position.
Currently, Khanna is in India with his CCIIA co-chair Michael Waltz, as they lead a bipartisan congressional delegation as part of India’s 77th Independence Day. The delegation was present during Modi’s national address at the historic Red Fort on August 15.
“The American public is largely unaware of what’s happening to Christians in India. Most people still find it hard to imagine Hindu nationalism as violent ideology. Most people have these benign images of Hinduism as practiced by Gandhi and others. Most people think of yoga or vegetarianism when they hear the word ‘Hindu,’” John Prabhudoss, of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA), told CT.
“This image is working against our efforts to make people understand the threat the church is facing in India.”
One week before this trip, Hindus for Human Rights (HHR), along with the Indian American Muslim Council and India Civil Watch International, met with Khanna to discuss their concerns, especially regarding the role of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party “in eroding democracy and rights.”
In response, Khanna “expressed his unwavering commitment to upholding democratic values and human rights both within India and the United States,” according to a HHR press release.
“A lot of people in DC have made this calculation that for the sake of a deeper US-India relationship, they need to be nice to Prime Minister Modi,” said Ria Chakrabarty, HRR’s policy director.
Since becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has made six trips to the United States. His engagements included speaking at Madison Square Garden and participating in a joint rally alongside then–US president Donald Trump in Houston. The recent state dinner and congressional address further reinforce the perception that Modi has not only experienced a rehabilitation but has been warmly embraced.
But questions have been raised in the United States on whether India is getting a “free pass” on human rights. These concerns arise from the praises of Indian democracy by Secretary of State Blinken as well as from Trump’s previous endorsement of Modi on his record of religious freedom, even as communal riots in Delhi were breaking out and leading to the deaths of many, the majority Muslims.
Indian government’s continued human rights violations and mistreatment of religious minorities have not kept other American politicians from aligning with Modi and his policies due to its growing significance as a counterbalance to China and its emergence as a major trading partner, particularly in the defense sector.
India plays a substantial role in America’s strategy of diversifying from China—enough that, concurrently with Modi’s address to Congress, lawmakers including Khanna introduced a resolution aiming to expedite arms sales to India.
From 2022 to 2023, the trade relationship between the two nations has increased exponentially from $63.7 billion to $128.55 billion. The US has now emerged as India’s biggest trading partner.
“Most US politicians are dead silent on the persecution of Indian Muslims and Christians. It’s not because they don’t know about it,” Friedrich told CT.
“The Biden administration and most of Congress are stuck on this theory that India can serve as a geopolitical balance against communist China’s expanding global influence, but they refuse to see the forest for the trees,” he said. “A Hindu nationalist regime which turns India into a fascist state that slaughters its own citizens is incapable of being a reliable partner in such a geopolitical scheme.”
Meanwhile, at least three Indian Americans—all from the Republican party—have announced their bid for the presidential elections: Nikki Haley, Hirsh Vardhan Singh, and Vivek Ramaswamy. While Haley professes a Christian faith, Singh and Ramaswamy are Hindu, with Ramaswamy facing criticism of being a Modi admirer.
In addition, Indian Americans with ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that birthed the BJP, have been increasingly running for office as Republicans and Democrats at state and national levels. Other prominent political names in the US who have been accused of close ties to organizations affiliated with the RSS are Tulsi Gabbard and Brad Sherman.
Thanedar, who represents Detroit, Michigan, and the area around it, has announced plans to form a “Hindu Caucus” in the US Congress that he says he’s forming “not only to ensure that there is no hate against Hinduism, [but] to ensure that there is no bigotry and no discrimination towards (the) Hindu religion and those who practice Hindu religion.”
In the meantime, Kuki activists in the US continue to work to assert their right to be heard.
Two days after the crisis in Manipur began, Florence Lowe, a tech entrepreneur in Dallas, founded NAMTA, one of the primary groups organizing in the US on behalf of the Kuki. Her 77-year-old mother, her sister-in-law, and young nieces and nephews live in Manipur.
“It’s just evil,” said Lowe. “I don’t recognize who these people are.”
In May, Lowe got a harrowing call from her sister telling Lowe that the family had been forced to flee from their home in the town of Paite Veng. (They were originally sheltered by a Hindu Meitei neighbor, and have since found refuge with family.)
In the continuing violence, houses have been burned and looted by mobs and churches destroyed. Lowe’s family’s neighborhood church was razed, and along with it, the pulpit Lowe’s father had designed. Aside from the thousands of displaced Kukis, hundreds of others have been physically attacked, raped, or killed. Lowe is worried that violence in Manipur will soon be forgotten and seen as “one of the many atrocities.”
“Just trying to raise awareness is not working,” she told RNS. “We need the body of Christ to speak up.”
Lowe is clear that the US government has the responsibility to address ethnic cleansing of this nature, no matter what the deep-rooted causes of violence are.
“I’ve always been religious, but this has made me so much more of a believer,” said Lowe. “One thing I’ve realized is that for all my education and experience, I don’t know how to solve this problem. I’ve realized that God is the only one who can really do anything.”