The occasion was unprecedented, the atmosphere was electric, and the crowd was elated at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a diplomatic charm offensive. There were 50,000 raucous supporters inside the stadium and over 1200 protesters outside; some with legitimate concerns, others driven by hidden agendas.
In another unprecedented move, U.S. President Donald Trump adjusted his re-election schedule and could not resist an audience of more than 50,000 Indian Americans packed into a football stadium. They came from all 48 states and are the second-largest immigrant group in the U.S. after Mexicans. The Indian American population in the U.S., totaling about 4 million, increased by 40% between 2010 and 2017. Thus, making them the fastest growing immigrant group in the country, according to a recent report by South Asian Americans Leading Together, a South Asian advocacy group.
Trump was not the only one to attend the rally; more than 30 Congressmen, state governors, and city mayors from both the Democratic and Republican parties also shared the stage with the two world leaders; demonstrating a bipartisan show of support for India. The theme of the Howdy Modi rally, “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures,” was a great gesture of shared values and mutual respect for the world’s two largest democracies.
Both senators from Texas, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, spoke at the rally and so did House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives. The chemistry and synergy between the two powerful, media-savvy politicians was a treat to watch.
Trump got his biggest applause by saying the United States is determined to help protect India from the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” President Trump took the stage at the rally following a speech from India's leader praising their mutual relationship. Trump and Modi held hands together and complemented each other throughout the rally. "India has a true friend in the White House," Modi remarked in his third address to a large crowd in the U.S.
"The relationship between the U.S. and India is stronger than ever before," Trump remarked. India and the U.S. are natural allies – with a bilateral trade of $142 billion in 2018. From a geostrategic perspective, India’s support is also critical in confronting China’s expansionist designs.
Without mentioning Pakistan even once, Modi took several jibes at his neighbor, “we will wage decisive battle against terrorists and terror masterminds of Mumbai attacks. I want to emphasize that President Trump is standing by us with his full force.” President Trump did not mention Kashmir in his speech, signaling a tacit approval to Modi who emphatically said, “there is no going back on revocation of Article 370,” which has removed the special status of Kashmir and made it an integral part of India.
Modi believes that the actions taken in Kashmir are in the best interest of the residents. “The people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have been deprived of equal rights. The forces fanning terrorism and separatism were exploiting this situation,” he said.
Kashmir – a perennial South Asian sore – has led to three wars already and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan recklessly raised the possibility of a nuclear war in his recent article in The New York Times. Modi may have just called his bluff. “India’s actions within its boundaries are causing distress to some people who are unable to manage their own country. These people have put their hatred for India at the center of their political agenda,” this was no less than throwing down the gauntlet to Islamabad.
Contrary to all diplomatic norms, Pakistan dispatched Ali Amin Gandapur, Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs & Gilgit Baltistan, to organize the anti-Modi protest in Houston. This was a modest success. The protesters, nonetheless, drew the world’s attention to the communication blockade and alleged human rights abuses in the Kashmir valley. A diverse crowd of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, mainly of South Asian descent, chanted slogans outside the stadium and got their point across. The world, however, remained more focused on what was happening inside the stadium, rather than outside.
“Howdy, Modi” was a diplomatic win for Modi and an endorsement of India as a global power on the world stage. India-US relations have matured to the point that even Kashmir cannot diminish them. However, India – as the world’s largest democracy – should know how to better treat its Kashmiri citizens in a humane way.
While Pakistan has surely run out of options to counter India in Kashmir, there is heightened concern with the U.S. lawmakers about the ground situation. More than two dozen members of the House and Senate have made some comments on social media about the crackdown, communication blockade, and curfew. The State Department has also expressed concern over the detention of hundreds of Kashmiri men, women, and children.
After the failed Afghan negotiations, Pakistan is in no position to incite violence in Kashmir which it has always dubbed as its jugular vein. Pakistan has reached an inflection point due to its failing economy and perpetual jingoism – Pakistan can scarcely afford another war anytime soon. Consequently, India needs to focus on its economic growth, upward social mobility and upholding the human rights for all its citizens – including those in Kashmir.
Pete Olson, Republican Congressman from Texas, recently wrote “Howdy Modi is about unity, not division; and it will bring the United States, India, and Texas closer than we have ever been before.”
Image credit: pmindia.gov.in