India’s Modi is getting a state visit with Biden, but the glitz is shadowed by human rights concerns

The leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies are looking to strengthen the crucial but complicated relationship between their countries.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands with President Joe Biden during a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Washington

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands with President Joe Biden during a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are marking the state visit of the Indian leader on Thursday by launching new partnerships in defense, semiconductor manufacturing and more sectors as the leaders look to strengthen their countries’ crucial — albeit complicated — relationship.

Thousands gathered on the White House South Lawn for the formal welcoming ceremony, listening to performances by violinist Vibha Janakiraman and the a cappella group Penn Masala. As Modi arrived, the crowd — including many sari and shalwar kameez-clad members of the Indian diaspora — broke out in a chant of “Modi! Modi Modi.”

“I’ve long believed the relationship between the United States and India… will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century,” Biden said with Modi by his side. “Since I’ve become president, we’ve continued to build a relationship built on mutual trust, candor and respect.”

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But as Biden fetes Modi, human rights advocates and some U.S. lawmakers are questioning the Democratic president’s decision to offer the high honor to a leader whose nine-year tenure over the world’s biggest democracy has been marked by a backslide in political, religious and press freedoms.

Biden administration officials say honoring Modi, the leader of the conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is Diplomacy 101. The U.S.-India relationship will be vital in coming decades as both sides navigate an ascendant China and enormous challenges posed by climate change, artificial intelligence, supply chain resilience and other issues.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden will raise his concerns but will avoid lecturing the prime minister during their formal talks.

“The question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians. It’s not going to be determined by the United States,” Sullivan said. “So what we can do is our part, and our part is to speak out on behalf of universal values.”

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Among the major announcements to be made Thursday is an agreement that will allow U.S.-based General Electric to partner with India-based Hindustan Aeronautics to produce jet engines for Indian aircraft in India and the sale of U.S.-made armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, according to senior Biden administration officials. The officials briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the major agreements ahead of their formal announcement.

The Biden administration also is unveiling plans aimed at bolstering India’s semiconductor industry. U.S.-based Micron Technology has agreed to build a $2.75 billion semiconductor assembly and test facility in India, with Micron spending $800 million and India funding the rest. U.S.-based Applied Materials is announcing it will launch a new semiconductor center for commercialization and innovation in India, and Lam Research, another semiconductor manufacturing equipment company, will start a training program for 60,000 Indian engineers.

On the space front, India will sign on to the the Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s lunar exploration plans. NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization also agreed to make a joint mission to the International Space Station next year.

“We made critical and emerging technologies the pillar of our next generation partnership to ensure these technologies promote and protect our values, remain open, accessible, trusted and secure,” Biden added. “All this matters for America, for India and for the world.”

The State Department will also announce plans to open consulates in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, while India will reopen its consulate in Seattle.

Despite the major deals, the visit will be shadowed by concerns laid out by rights activists and lawmakers that question Modi’s commitment to democratic principles.

Modi has faced criticism over legislation amending the country’s citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some migrants but excludes Muslims, a rise in violence against Muslims and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists, and the recent conviction of India’s top opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for mocking Modi’s surname.

In 2005, the U.S. revoked Modi’s visa to the U.S., citing concerns that, as chief minister of Gujarat, he did not act to stop communal violence during 2002 anti-Muslim riots that left more than 1,000 people dead. An investigation approved by the Indian Supreme Court later absolved Modi, but the stain of the dark moment has lingered.

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar on Minnesota have said they will boycott Modi’s address on Thursday before a joint meeting of Congress. And a group of more than 70 lawmakers wrote Biden this week calling on him to use his meeting with Modi to raise concerns about the erosion of religious, press and political freedoms.

“It is an important country to me, and we must call out some of the real issues that are threatening the viability of of democracy in all of our countries,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who was born in India and helped organize the lawmakers’ letter. “If India continues to backslide, I think it will affect our ability to have a really strong relationship with the country.”

Biden and Modi have also had differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine. India abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions condemning Russia and refused to join the global coalition against Russia. Since the start of the war, the Modi government has also dramatically increased its purchase of Russian oil.

White House officials note that there are signs of change in India’s relationship with Russia, which has long been New Delhi’s biggest defense supplier.

India is moving away from Russian military equipment, looking more to the U.S., Israel, the United Kingdom and other nations. Modi recently met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and has spoken out about his worries about the potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia.

State visits typically are reserved for America’s closest allies, but they also have been used in the past as a carrot to try to strengthen relationships with countries with which the United States has had complicated relationships.

President Barack Obama honored Chinese Presidents Hu Jintao in 2011 and Xi Jinping in 2015.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter hosted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, and his wife for a state visit. That visit came about 15 months before the shah was overthrown in Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Violent clashes between pro- and anti-shah demonstrators broke out just south of the White House, leading police to deploy tear gas as an official ceremony was underway on the South Lawn. The stinging tear gas wafted to the welcoming ceremony.

Carter later apologized to the shah for the “air pollution.”

Modi’s busy itinerary on Thursday includes an Oval Office meeting with Biden, his address to Congress and a lavish White House state dinner hosted by Biden and first lady Jill Biden.

Modi, who hasn’t taken part in a formal press conference in years, has agreed to participate in one with Biden, according to the White House. Typically, state visits include a news conference in which the leaders take questions from two members of the U.S. press and two from the visiting press corps.

Modi is to be honored at a State Department luncheon on Friday hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He also is scheduled to address members of the Indian diaspora before departing Washington.

“President Biden is invested in making sure we get this partnership between these two countries, between these two peoples, right,” Sullivan said, adding that this could “deliver benefits to both of our peoples and to the world as a whole in the decades to come.”


Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.

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