Over the last month, the government of India has moved thousands of troops into Kashmir, reportedly rounded up more than 2,000 Kashmiris, and cut off phone lines and internet access in the region.
The government of Pakistan, which also claims the restive territory, has said genocide could be coming. And world leaders have said India’s move means a conflict between the two nuclear powers may be closer than ever.
Despite that, an American member of Congress from California is urging his colleagues to appear with the country’s prime minister at a massive rally in Houston on Sept. 22. The event, called “Howdy, Modi!” includes a segment purporting to honor human rights heroes.
Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, sent a letter to members of Congress on Aug. 23 asking them to participate in the event. The letter says Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will appear at a reception at NRG Park—where the Houston Texans play—with 50,000 people. The event will be broadcast to more than 300 million people, according to Sherman’s letter, and “will include a segment honoring the great work of human rights leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
“As a co-Chair [of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans], I hope that you will participate in welcoming Prime Minister Modi to Houston,” he wrote.
Members of Congress who participate will get a bit of airtime. According to the event schedule in Sherman’s letter, the members will be introduced on stage right before Modi begins delivering an address.
The invitation has raised eyebrows on the Hill.
“India is a friend and ally,” said one member of Congress, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But no Member or Senator should join a pep rally for Modi as long as India is holding people without charge, cutting off communications to people in Kashmir, and provoking a nuclear-armed neighbor.”
And Brad Adams, who heads the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, cautioned members against participating in the rally.
“Modi presided over the worst anti-Muslim violence in the last generation, in 2002 in Gujra when he was the chief minister of the state,” Adams said. “If they are comparing him to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., then they’re demeaning the legacies of two of the world’s great human rights champions.”
“It’s hard to believe that any members of Congress who would attend such an event doesn’t know better,” he added.
Sherman, who chairs the Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended his involvement in a statement.
“As Democratic Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, of course it is my role to let my colleagues know that the prime minister of India is coming to our country and that they are invited to attend,” he said. “There are 4 million Indian-Americans who have made significant contributions to our country and it would be an insult not to recognize them. The U.S. and India have a deep security relationship and many common interests in the Indo-Pacific. It would be a mistake not to recognize that. I think the fact that the event recognizes the monumental human rights achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King is a reason to attend, not a reason to abstain from attending. I do have serious concerns about Kashmir and other human rights issues in South Asia, and that’s why I am planning a Hearing on Human Rights in South Asia.”
A spokesperson for the Texas India Forum, which is organizing the “Howdy, Modi!,” said the event “brings together tens of thousands of Americans who believe in the values we share with the world's largest democracy” and “celebrates India’s progress towards becoming a nation free of corruption, where citizens—without any distinction—have access to healthcare, electricity, sanitation, infrastructure, education and the freedom to pursue their dreams.”
Sherman’s subcommittee announced earlier this month that it will soon hold a hearing on human rights in the region, including the situation in Kashmir.
“I had an opportunity to meet with Americans from Kashmir Valley just a week ago in the San Fernando Valley, along with my colleague Congressman André Carson,” Sherman said in a press release announcing the hearing. “We heard stories of difficulties encountered by my constituents and others, and the fears they have for their loved ones. I look forward to learning more about human rights in Kashmir.”