In March 2005, the United States denied a visa to Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, now the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate in next year’s Indian elections. The visa was denied because of Mr. Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims. But it came about from a highly unusual coalition made up of Indian-born activists, evangelical Christians, Jewish leaders and Republican members of Congress concerned about religious freedom around the globe.
I had a front-row seat to these events as they unfolded. I worked in Washington. D.C., from 2003 to 2011, mostly at Amnesty International and in the United States
Congress, and I was a part of the campaign to deny Mr. Modi a visa.
In 1996, Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, organized a summit sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that represents 42,000 Evangelical Churches. At the conclusion of the event, the delegates pledged their collective efforts to “take appropriate action to combat the intolerable religious persecution now victimizing fellow believers and those of other faiths.”
The timing was perfect. Two years earlier, Republicans had taken a majority of seats in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952, and the new batch of Republican Congress members were eager to see that protection of Christians be a central part of United States foreign policy.
The result was the International Religious Freedom Act, which Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, introduced in March 1998 to wide, bipartisan support.
Though Mr. Wolf’s original vision called for sanctions on countries that violated religious freedom, that idea ran into resistance from corporations that worked in countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
In the new piece of legislation, most of the language on sanctions was dumped. However, one clause would carry over and would later prove fateful to Mr. Modi. Section 604 of the new legislation read: “Any alien who, while serving as a foreign official, was responsible or directly carried out, at any time during the preceding 24-month period, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, as defined in Section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act 1998 and the spouse and children, if any, are inadmissible.”
Soon after the passage of the law, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government-funded agency, was created. Many of the initial commissioners had strong evangelical leanings, but when Felice D. Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s human rights program, was selected as a commissioner in 2001, she decided to widen the panel’s scope to other religions.
“I wanted to turn this around, to make our focus broader,” Ms. Gaer said in an interview. This chance came in February 2002 when she learned about the riots in Gujarat, India. “We learned about the riots in real time. We had people on staff who kept telling us we need to do something,” Ms. Gaer said.
Ms. Gaer tried to arrange an official commission trip to India to survey the damage caused by the 2002 riots but was denied permission to enter India.
Instead, the commission decided to hold a hearing in Washington in June 2002. Ms. Gaer was “shocked” by the findings at the hearing. “I can’t forget what I heard that day,” Ms. Gaer said.
Alex Wong/Getty ImagesCongressman Frank Wolf speaking at a campaign rally in Springfield, Virginia, on Aug. 17, 2012. Mr. Wolf was the author of the International Religious Freedom Act, which served as the basis to deny Narendra Modi a United States visa.
In the fall of 2002, an Indian-born, Washington-based evangelical Christian named John Prabhudoss led a delegation to riot-affected Ahmedabad that included two Republican congressmen, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Mr. Wolf. Another person on the trip was Raju Rajagopal, an Indian-born retired health professional based in Berkeley, Calif.
“It was unimaginable what we saw in Gujarat,” Mr. Rajagopal said. “People in Gujarat told us that Indian Americans were sending loads of money to groups like the R.S.S. and the V.H.P.” that, he argued, had a role in fueling the violence, Mr. Rajagopal said. He was referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, two Hindu nationalist groups founded in 1925 and 1964, respectively.
In a report on violence against women during the 2002 Gujarat riots, written by a collection of Gujarat-based nongovernmental organizations known as Citizen Initiative, the authors found that the violence followed “an escalation of tension and build-up by the V.H.P. and the Bajrang Dal,” another Hindu nationalist group.
In a report in 2002, Human Rights Watch described a letter, bearing the name and logo of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, that called for an economic boycott of Muslims in Gujarat, creating a climate of fear. However, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the letter could not be traced and that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad denied authorship.
When Mr. Rajagopal returned to California, he began to campaign against the American support for Hindu nationalist groups in India like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He co-wrote a 91-page report that alleged that the India Development and Relief Fund, which was based in the United States, had collected $4 million and sent some of the funds to right-wing Hindu groups.
Soon after the release of the report, Silicon Valley companies with large numbers of Indian-American employees promised to either stop or suspend donor matching programs with the fund.
“It was a tremendous victory and it gave us momentum to keep fighting,” Mr. Rajagopal said.
The report also did something else — it created a network of activists across the United States who could be quickly mobilized when they learned of Mr. Modi’s planned visit to the country in 2005.
“When we heard about Modi’s visit, we were ready,” Mr. Rajagopal said. “Actually, we had been ready and waiting for Modi’s visit for a few years.”
In early 2005, Mr. Prabhudoss learned that the Asian American Hotel Owners Association was sponsoring a conference in south Florida in late March 2005 and had invited then-Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the TV talk show host Chris Matthews and Mr. Modi. The association was created in 1989 as a trade group for hotel owners in the United States, and today there are 10,000 members representing 22,000 hotels. The group’s chairman, Nash Patel, said at the time that 98 percent of the group’s members had roots in Gujarat.
Soon after Mr. Modi’s United States visit was announced, 41 South Asian groups across the country came together to form the Coalition Against Genocide. On Feb. 24, 2005, a letter organized by the group was signed by over 100 professors and sent to the hotel association, asking them to rescind Mr. Modi’s invitation. Another pressure group flooded Mr. Matthews with letters.
On March 8, 2005, Mr. Matthews backed out of the conference for “scheduling reasons.” On March 15, Amnesty International said it had written a letter to American Express asking it to withdraw its sponsorship of the conference.
Mr. Prabhudoss focused on Washington. “If this was going to work, we had to make a legal and not a political argument as to why the United States should deny a visa to Modi,” he said. He zeroed in on the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which stipulates that no person who has violated religious freedom could enter the country.
He knew he could count on Mr. Pitts, the Republican lawmaker who accompanied him on a visit to Gujarat in 2002, but he had a tough time convincing Democrats to block Mr. Modi’s visa.
“We needed a Democrat so the White House could say there is bipartisan support against Modi,” Mr. Prabhudoss said. He hired two professional Democratic lobbyists to assist him with his efforts, for an amount Mr. Prabhudoss declined to disclose.
Mr. Prabhudoss found an ally in John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan who is the longest serving African-American member of Congress and has a large Arab and Muslim constituency.
On March 16, 2005, House Resolution 160 was introduced in Congress, condemning Mr. Modi “for his actions to incite religious persecution.” On March 18, the State Department denied Mr. Modi a visa. Three days later, the United States ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, said, “This decision applies to Mr. Narendra Modi only. It is based on the fact that, as head of the state government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, he was responsible for the performance of state institutions at that time.”
Mr. Modi called the visa denial in 2005 “an attack on Indian sovereignty” and raised the question, “Will India also consider what America has done in Iraq when it processes visa applications of Americans coming to India?”
Despite the success in denying Mr. Modi a United States visa, disillusionment quickly set in for Mr. Rajagopal, the retired California businessman who accompanied Mr. Prabhudoss to Gujarat in 2002.
“The frustrating thing was that the visa denial was probably the only thing really dealt a blow to Modi,” he said. “I just wish it had been brought about by a large, secular coalition. I am not so sure that is true. The thing that made a difference was the right-wing evangelical support.”
Mr. Prabhudoss acknowledged that evangelical support played a big part but said that Mr. Modi was denied a visa for other reasons as well.
“Back then, we were working without any opposition. It was incredible, really,” Mr. Prabhudoss said. “The Modi supporters were there, but they sat that one out. And back then, the Indian lobby was not powerful like they are today. You could speak against Modi and there were no political consequences. Today, it is a completely different story.”
Joseph Grieboski, the founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Virginia, who also was deeply involved in trying to block Mr. Modi’s visit, said that the mood has shifted now.
“When the U.S. denied Mr. Modi a visa in 2005, it was like the U.S. denying a visa to the governor of Iowa — no offense to Gujarat,” he said. “The U.S. did not see it as a big deal. And back then, it seemed clear to everyone in this town that Modi was involved in the riots. Now the picture is fuzzier, and many are intrigued by Modi.”
But the American government’s stance on Mr. Modi remains the same. Two days after Mr. Modi was selected on Sept. 13, 2013 as the official prime ministerial candidate to represent the B.J.P., the United States government reiterated its policy on Mr. Modi’s visa.
“There’s no change in our longstanding visa policy,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. “He is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant.”
These days, however, religious freedom is no longer a foreign policy priority in Washington, and the strong evangelical Christian opposition to Mr. Modi has faded.
While Republicans led the opposition to Mr. Modi’s visa in 2005, there are now Republicans among Mr. Modi’s strongest supporters. When the Tea Party candidate Joe Walsh campaigned in Illinois for Congress, he promised he would push the United States to grant Mr. Modi a visa. (He lost to his Democratic challenger, Tammy Duckworth.)
In March, three Republicans members of Congress visited Mr. Modi in Gujarat, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. The trip for Ms. McMorris Rodgers and her husband cost $15,000 and was paid for by the co-founder of the National Indian American Public Policy Institute, Shalli Kumar, a supporter of Mr. Modi based in Chicago.
But the opposition to Mr. Modi continues to be led by Republicans as well, in particular by Mr. Pitts and Mr. Wolf. In November, Mr. Pitts introduced House Resolution 417, which urges the United States government to continue to deny Mr. Modi a visa. Notably, the resolution has 28 co-sponsors, the majority of them Democrats.
The resolution is not expected to pass, partly because India is not seen as a priority in American foreign policy at the moment. When I conducted research in Washington this summer, many House and Senate aides said they had no idea who Mr. Modi was. Those who did know told me they would make up their minds about Mr. Modi when next year’s elections in India are decided.
Despite his rising profile in India, there is still little interest in Mr. Modi in Washington. This may be a harder pill for Mr. Modi to swallow: It is not that he is hated or loved in Washington; he is just not mentioned much.
What has shifted, however, is that the Indian lobby is much more powerful today than it previously was. “There is no Modi lobby,” said a former colleague of mine from Amnesty International, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “There is an Indian lobby, and they do not want to hear any criticism of India, whether it be on the Delhi rape case or on the Modi issue. They just want to hear good things about India.”
Others I spoke with, especially Indian Americans in the United States government, said they are anxious to see how the issue plays out.
One of them, who was appointed to a senior position by President Obama, agreed to meet me at a cafe in Washington but asked to remain anonymous because this official was not authorized to speak to the media.
“I know it is a cliché,” the official said, “but our talking point on India has always been, ‘India and the U.S. are both democracies that share the same values.’ You cannot really apply that statement to Modi. If Modi becomes prime minister, I guess we will have to come up with something new to say.”