Dear Mr. Bill Gates and Ms. Melinda Gates,
It is with deep sadness and some hope, that we are writing to you on behalf of the Alliance for Justice and Accountability, an umbrella coalition of various organizations dedicated to promoting the common values of pluralism, tolerance, social justice and respect for human rights that form the basis of the world’s two largest secular democracies – the United States and India.
Millions of people are rightly in awe of your philanthropic work and the positive impact it has had on entire communities around the world. Unfortunately your recent decision to honor Mr. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, with the "Global Goalkeeper Award," is at odds with the Foundation's stated values of respecting all lives as having equal value. Leaders of human rights organizations, activists and people of conscience who are familiar with the worsening situation in India are rightly concerned about this undeserved honor, given Mr. Modi's widely acknowledged track record as an egregious violator of human rights and religious freedom.
Even before Mr. Modi came to power, his role in the pogrom of Gujarat in 2002 that resulted in the massacre of over 2,000 Muslims earned him the dubious distinction of being the only individual whose visa to the United States was revoked in 2005 under the International Religious Freedom Act. He was labelled as the “butcher of Gujarat” and “Hitler of the East”.
Mr. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), deemed the fountainhead of a supremacist ideology known as Hindutva. RSS is the same organization that was responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and whose members continue to glorify the assassin. Founders of this ideology have expressed open admiration for Adolf Hitler and his idea of exterminating the Jewish people. True to his ideological moorings, Mr. Modi has moved aggressively since being elected to power to advance the RSS's agenda of turning India into a Hindu majoritiarian state where Christians, Muslims and people of "lower" castes are relegated to the status of second class citizens, and whose institutions are a reflection of the RSS’s fascist mindset.
This is consistent with multiple reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that paint a disturbing picture of a polity that is complicit in mass violation of human rights and religious freedom. Dozens of hearings at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission have raised concerns about the evil of Hindutva supremacy taking over India.
Mr. Modi is not only presiding over this evil subversion of India's democratic and secular institutions, but is actively spearheading the effort. In the Indian state of Assam, Mr. Modi's administration has implemented a nefarious scheme to strip 1.9 million mostly Indian Muslims of their citizenship, including the family of the late Muslim President of India, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. As seen in neighboring Myanmar, the denial of citizenship to people who have lived in a land for generations is the first step towards ethnic cleansing.
Organizations that are affiliates of the RSS have launched a violent campaign of lynching of Indian Muslims and Dalits, often merely on the suspicion of possessing beef or transporting cattle. This campaign of brutal murders motivated forty-nine eminent intellectuals in India to write an open letter to PM Modi demanding that such hate crimes against Dalits and Muslims be stopped immediately, and that perpetrators be made to face the law.
In Kashmir, Mr. Modi’s administration has placed 8 Million Muslims under house arrest with total communication blockade (no access to cell phone, Internet and land lines). There are credible reports from multiple sources of torture and police violence exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, while hospitals in Kashmir are unable to provide patients with basic medicines and lifesaving treatment.
Dalits, who have been the victims of the longest running system of apartheid in the history of humanity, have witnessed an uptick in “upper” caste oppression, violence and discrimination. Rape as an instrument of subjugation and humiliation of an entire community has long been the RSS's strategy in dealing with religious minorities, as seen in Gujarat (2002), Muzaffarnagar (2013) and in several other instances of mass violence. Countless people have been imprisoned on false charges of terrorism, only to be acquitted after having spent, in some cases over 15 years behind bars. Mr. Modi's administration has curtailed the media's independence, while human rights activists and whistleblowers have borne Modi's wrath in the form of witch hunts and brutal repression.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders now ranks India 138th on its World Press Freedom Index that lists 180 countries. India is now down 2 positions on the index since 2017, lower than Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Afghanistan.
At least three senior editors have left their jobs at various influential media outlets in the past six months after publishing reports that angered the government or supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to colleagues. Some reporters, as well as television anchors, have told Reuters they have been threatened with physical harm, abused on social media and ostracized by Modi’s administration.
This is happening in the backdrop of Mr. Modi's administration seeking to rewrite history books to advance the RSS's ultranationalist narrative, while also subverting the country's scientific temper in an attempt to claim mythical scientific advancement that supposedly existed thousands of years ago as part of India's glorious Hindu past.
Apparently, the "Global Goalkeeper award" is being bestowed on Mr. Modi as a recognition of the efforts made by his administration in building a large number of toilets around the country in a much needed effort to eliminate open defecation. However, we believe it is reasonable to expect that an influential and resourceful philanthropic organization such as the Gates Foundation would assess the individual's impact to society in determining their suitability for a prestigious award. In that regard, your decision to confer this award on Mr. Modi comes as a slap in the face of millions of Indians who are victims of Mr. Modi's brutal and violent tactics designed to remake India as a hegemony of upper caste Hindus, and suppress dissent in the media as well as in civil society.
We urge you to study the horrific impact of Mr. Modi's policies on religious minorities, on women, as well as on India's impoverished millions who are victims of a cold, heartless state that appears to have complete disregard for human suffering. For the Gates Foundation to honor such an individual is sheer cruelty, made all the more hurtful by the prestige and legitimacy the award carries.
We hope you will do the right thing and revoke the decision to confer the award on Mr. Modi, safeguarding not only the dignity of the millions who have suffered under Mr. Modi but also the credibility of the Gates Foundation. Your revocation will be an affirmation that philanthropy truly means the “love of humanity.”
Thenmozhi Soundararajan (Equality Labs, Dalit American Foundation)
Ahsan Khan (Indian American Muslim Council)
Shaik Ubaid (Indian Muslim Advocacy Network, Muslim Peace Coalition)