Indian MPs want Obama to keep visa ban on Modi

A devotee shows his back, with an image of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, as he flexes his muscles during the 134th annual Rath Yatra

UNITED STATES - The United States has become the latest battleground for Indian politicians skirmishing over a highly controversial public figure who could become the next prime minister of India.

A group of 65 members of the Indian Parliament has written to US President Barack Obama to maintain a visa ban on Mr Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat and the likely prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In 2005, the US imposed a visa ban on Mr Modi, under provisions that bar the entry of foreign officials responsible for serious violations of religious freedom. The ban followed sharp criticism worldwide for Mr Modi's alleged failure in 2002 to stop India's worst religious riots in decades in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

Mr Modi, 62, denies any wrongdoing. He refuses to apologise or express remorse over the riots on his watch, and has never been convicted in court. But the taint has marred his otherwise clean image of an efficient administrator and polarised public opinion ahead of general elections due next May.

The letter from the Indian MPs, who belong to 12 different political parties, was first sent late last year. It was faxed again to the White House on Sunday, just as a top BJP official toured the US to lobby for the visa ban to be revoked.

"We wish to respectfully urge you to maintain the current policy of denying Mr Modi a visa to the United States," the MPs said in the letter, which was leaked to the media this week.

"Given that legal cases against the culprits including many senior officials in Mr Modi's administration are still pending in the court of law, any revoking of the ban at this juncture would be seen as a dismissal of the issues concerning Mr Modi's role in the horrific massacres of 2002," the letter said.

Mr Obama's office has not reacted to the Indian domestic political feud.

 

But many European governments have already re-established contact with Mr Modi, drawn by his pro-business policies that have put Gujarat on a high growth path and expanded his support base among India's middle-class.

In a twist surrounding the letter that has captured the headlines in the Indian media, at least three MPs denied signing it on Wednesday. Two of them are from a leftist party traditionally opposed to the United States.

The campaign against Mr Modi in the US has been led mainly by the Indian-American Muslim Council, a US-based advocacy group, with support from some secular-minded liberals in India.

BJP supporters have been lobbying the US administration to overturn the ban. Some American lawmakers have also weighed in, arguing for the economic benefits of aligning with Mr Modi.

"They will have to do it one day, if not now," BJP president Rajnath Singh told a meeting of Indian Americans during his visit to the United States this week as he pressed Mr Modi's case.

"If they do it now, it will be better."


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