By Sean McGuffin
President Trump’s trip to India showcased his, at best, disregard for mass violence against Muslims. While Trump lauded Indian Prime Minister Modi for his religious tolerance and the ink dried on a new US-India arms deal, the ashes of burned out homes cooled after an anti-Muslim pogrom scorched North Delhi, leaving at least 53 dead. Members of Congress should fight to block Trump’s arms deal with Modi, using the same tools they deployed in an attempt to staunch the flow of American weapons to Saudi Arabia last summer. These riots are only the latest chapter in a string of policies discriminating against Muslims enacted by the Modi government, and the US Congress has a moral responsibility to stand up to violent religious repression.
The violence arose as a response to peaceful protest against India’s new discriminatory citizenship laws. A politician from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party called for the protest to be broken up by force, saying “we will stay silent until Trump’s departure, but after that we will not even listen to [the police].” Following up on that threat, Hindu nationalist mobs burnt mosques and assaulted people in the streets, perpetrating India’s worst mass violence in years. While this was going on, others — Hindus and Muslims alike — risked their lives to protect their neighbors.
This incident is only one in a series that have taken place on Modi’s watch. Lynchings and other violence against Muslims have increased, with perpetrators escaping punishment at every turn. Modi revoked local autonomy and dissolved state government in the majority Muslim region of Kashmir, then shut off internet access and curtailed other freedoms to limit dissent . What’s more, the prime minister’s new citizenship laws, the reason protesters were in the streets on the eve of the pogrom, threaten to strip millions of Muslim Indians of their citizenship, and many have already been detained or deported in the state of Assam.
As the riots raged, Modi was busy pulling out all the stops for Trump’s first visit to India, and both leaders remained mostly silent about the ongoing violence. Though there was no progress on an anticipated trade agreement, the two did agree on a $3.8 billion arms deal. There is a long American tradition of selling weapons to basically whoever is willing to pay — a tradition Trump has proudly upheld. This arms deal, however, is especially egregious given Trump and Modi’s shared enthusiasm for anti-Muslim violence and discrimination. Because of that, the deal also presents Congress with an opportunity to act against bigotry abroad and send a message at home.
Congress has the authority to review weapons sales and the power to block them if it so chooses. It can hold up an arms deal during the legally required 30 days notification period before an agreement is signed or at any point before materials are delivered. Both options however require Senate and House approval, necessitating bipartisan support, but cooperation on this issue may be more likely than some might think.
Last summer, responding to overwhelming sentiment from Americans of all political persuasions, both parties worked together to prevent $8 billion worth of weapons from going to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support their ongoing bombing of Yemen. Unfortunately, Trump used a legal loophole to go around Congress and push the deal through, issuing an emergency declaration citing tensions with Iran.
This time around, it will be harder for the President to justify an emergency to get around Congress. But it will also take work to convince Congress that this is an urgent crisis, in need of active intervention.
Fortunately, lawmakers of all stripes have generally been paying attention to developments in India as they unfold. Before the president’s trip, a group of Democrats and Republicans issued a joint letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, voicing their concern and alluding to consequences for Modi’s repression in Kashmir and “troubling steps that threaten the rights of certain religious minorities.” Due to political push back from his own party about circumventing Congress and the absence of an active conflict that India is involved in, it’s unlikely that Trump would attempt to use the same legal loophole to barrel ahead with this arms deal as he did last time. That is, if it can be blocked in the first place.
Unfortunately, between election news, pandemic scares, and more election news, issues half a world away tend to fall by the wayside amongst the public, and politicians soon after. The co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, Mark Warner and John Cornyn, effectively endorsed Trump’s trip, while still noting their alarm at the recent violence, and it’s unclear if either would support a resolution blocking the sale.
For something to be done, politicians, especially Republicans, have to know people care, and mostly that means engaging your representative on social media, with calls, and with emails. Many of them already know about the discrimination; all they need now it to hear from us, their employers.
Sean McGuffin is an editor based in the Washington, DC area. He is the Chief Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s fellowship program and holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations degree from Old Dominion University.