By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t backing down from honoring India Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite concerns about human rights abuses in the disputed Kashmir region.
A dozen people, some wearing “Free Kashmir” T-shirts, with the Justice For All coalition delivered 100,000 petition signatures, many from people of South Asian descent, to the Gates Foundation’s Seattle headquarters on Sept. 16. They want the world’s largest private nonprofit to reverse a decision to honor Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, a sanitation initiative that improved access to toilets.
Local civil rights organization CAIR Washington joined 52 national and international organizations, on Sept. 17, in demanding the Gates Foundation to rescind the award.
Masih Fouladi, CAIR Washington’s executive director, said, “This award will further normalize PM Modi’s violent human rights violations in Kashmir, Assam, Gujarat, and other parts of India.”
University of Washington student Maryam Gani’s parents are traveling to Kashmir to visit her grandmother, who was recently widowed. Gani is worried for their safety. She called the Gates award a “slap in the face” and ironic given the foundation’s stated belief that “all lives have equal value.”
“They are essentially flushing the concerns of hundreds of thousands of people down the drain by …this award,” Gani said.
Priya Rai, a community organizer at API Chiya and a Hindu-Indian American who joined the meetings with the foundation, is shocked by the award.
“The Gates Foundation is not living up to its principles,” Priya said. “It talks about holding governments accountable for their human rights records, yet here it is rewarding a serial human rights abuser.”
On Sept. 13, three Nobel Peace Prize winners—Shirin Ebadi, Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, and Mairead Maguire—co-signed a protest letter addressed to Bill and Melinda Gates.
“Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, India has descended into dangerous and deadly chaos that has consistently undermined human rights, democracy,” they wrote. “This is particularly troubling to us as the stated mission of your foundation is to preserve life and fight inequity.”
The letter urges the Gates Foundation to withdraw the award to “send a clear and powerful message that [it] takes its aim of equity, justice, and human rights for all seriously — and that it is committed to promoting these values in a consistent fashion.”
Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government presented an order in Parliament on Aug. 5 revoking the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state. It has imposed tighter controls on India’s side of Kashmir, including limiting internet access, mobile and landline phones, and cable TV in the disputed region home to 12.5 million people.
The Gates Foundation emailed a statement to the Northwest Asian Weekly, saying it respects the views of petitioners, but Modi will receive its annual Goalkeepers Global Goals Award.
The statement said, “Before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do. There is still a long way to go, but the impacts of access to sanitation in India are already being realized. The Swachh Bharat Mission can serve as a model for other countries around the world that urgently need to improve access to sanitation for the world’s poorest.”
Debadutta Dash, co-chair of the Washington State India Trade Relations Action Committee, stated that the award to Modi on Swachh Bharat “has nothing to do with what certain section of media is demanding. The demands appear to be very naive and childish or as if part of an anti-Modi political propaganda, which isn’t new.”
In an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly, Dash said Kashmir has been and still is an integral part of India.
“The Indian government has allocated a good portion of its annual budget every year since 1950 for the state of Kashmir,” Dash said. “But the funds never reached the common people as temporary Articles (370 and 35A) of the Indian constitution were abused by the local politicians of Kashmir.”
Dash said the Modi government repealed those temporary articles by a two-thirds majority vote.
“It was not done unilaterally.” He added that the recent curfew and communication cut-off is part of a temporary enforcement and no civilian casualties have taken place.
The Gates Foundation’s annual event, focusing on global inequality, on Sept. 24 and 25 coincides with the United Nations General Assembly gathering and has drawn big-name politicians and celebrities, from former President Barack Obama to Ed Sheeran. However, the Gates Foundation confirmed that actors Jameela Jamil and Riz Ahmed have dropped out of its event.
Modi will be in the United States next week to receive the foundation’s award. He will also attend a rally with President Donald Trump in Houston.
The White House said Trump will use the “Howdy, Modi! Shared Dreams, Bright Futures” event to “emphasize the strong ties between the people of the United States and India” and reaffirm the two countries’ strategic partnership.
Houston will be the first stop in Modi’s week-long trip to the United States. Apart from addressing the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23, Modi is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27.
We reached out to state lawmakers of South Asian descent for comment. State Sen. Mona Das and state Rep. Vandana Slatter were unavailable, while State Sen. Manka Dhingra did not respond to our inquiry.
Stand with Kashmir-Seattle will hold a protest in front of the Gates Foundation on Sept. 22 from 3-6 p.m.