Walsh steps into political minefield with suburban Indian community

Support for Indian leader could cost him some votes

 
 
Updated 6/3/2012 1:28 PM
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  • Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi wears a traditional hat during a rally in 2009 in India.

    Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi wears a traditional hat during a rally in 2009 in India. Associated Press

  • Rajinder Singh Mago, who lives near St. Charles with his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago,says Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has not done enough to bring justice to victims of religious rioting in India.

      Rajinder Singh Mago, who lives near St. Charles with his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago,says Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has not done enough to bring justice to victims of religious rioting in India. BEV HORNE | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Walsh

    Joe Walsh

  • Tammy Duckworth

    Tammy Duckworth

A controversy is brewing in the suburban Indian-American community over Republican Congressman Joe Walsh's support of an Indian politician accused by some of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Muslims a decade ago in India.

The McHenry Tea Partyer says he was approached by several members of the Indian-American community in the 8th Congressional District -- where he is making a Nov. 6 bid for re-election against Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates -- to intervene on behalf of Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat in India, who was denied a U.S. diplomatic visa and whose tourist/business visa was revoked in 2005.

"I looked into this. I was comfortable being an advocate for him," said Walsh, who recently wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that she consider granting Modi a visa.

Walsh described Modi as someone with "quite a successful track record" of fiscal responsibility, "kind of like a Tea Party free market guy in India, which I found very appealing."

In Modi's case in 2005, federal officials cited a law declaring anyone ineligible for a visa who "was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Modi and Gujarat officials have been accused of complicity in 2002 riots in the western Indian state in which nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed.

The violence started when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob and caught fire, killing 59 people. In three days of retaliatory violence by Hindu mobs, hundreds of Muslims were killed and countless Muslim homes were destroyed, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

However, a special investigation team of India's Supreme Court found no "prosecutable evidence" against Modi.

Indian Americans in the suburbs are divided on Walsh's intercession for Modi.

"It goes against the basic principles of this country, which stands for freedom, justice and promoting religious harmony," said Firoz Vohra of Harvey, a national board member of the Indian American Muslim Council. "What I really hope and pray is that (Walsh) is misinformed and he does not know the details."

A coalition of Indian Americans, including Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Sikhs and secular Hindus, will "reach out to Joe Walsh's campaign manager to try to educate them about this issue," Vohra added. "We have a massive campaign under way."

However, Modi's supporters in the suburban Gujarati American community say he has not been charged with any serious crimes and they are grateful for Walsh's attempt to help secure a visa for Modi.

"It's not only unfair, it's ridiculous," said Bharat Barai, a board member of the Manav Seva Mandir Temple in Bensenville and a trustee of the Federation of Indian Associations of Chicago.

"For us to deny a visa to an elected leader just based on accusation ... In this country, we have the presumption that you are considered innocent until proven guilty," Barai said.

The 8th Congressional District, stretching from Addison to Elgin and including portions of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties, was dubbed by Democratic primary bidder Raja Krishnamoorthi as "perhaps the most Asian district in the Midwest."

According to 2012 census figures, 12 percent of the district's residents are of Asian descent; 4 percent are South Asian.

In the six-county suburban Chicago region, the Asian Indian population has grown from 93,735 in 2000 to 146,670 in 2010, a roughly 57 percent increase, according to the Asian-American Institute.

Walsh spoke at a May 19 Gujarat Day celebration in Bartlett -- recognizing the 52nd anniversary of the creation of the state of Gujarat -- where he said he would not smile until Modi is officially invited to the United States.

The comment elicited a standing ovation from the crowd of 1,500 people, said Barai, who was the national coordinator for Gujarat Day celebrations in 12 cities across the United States.

Modi himself gave a live satellite television address to the Gujarati communities in those 12 cities.

Walsh's efforts to court the suburban Indian community -- an affluent voting constituency typically neglected by Democrats and Republicans alike -- comes on the heels of the Democratic primary loss of Indian American candidate Krishnamoorthi, who likely would have garnered much of the community's support.

"The communal riots that occurred in the state of Gujarat that took place in 2002 are undeniably tragic," Walsh wrote in his letter to Clinton. However, he noted, "The region has worked for years now to bring justice (to) those that committed serious crimes and many strides have been seen toward reconciliation among Muslims and Hindus in the region."

Modi, Walsh noted, "has been recognized across the world for establishing Gujarat as the most business-friendly state in India and is widely believed to be a serious contender for the 2014 election for Indian Prime Minister."

Walsh said that according to his research, government officials can be denied a visa if they're responsible for certain violations of religious freedom that occurred within 24 months of applying for a visa.

"This was 10 years ago," Walsh said, saying Clinton's office indicated "all (Modi) has got to do (to get a visa) is reapply."

The state department confirmed it has been communicating with Walsh's office over the issue but declined other comment.

Modi himself has never sought the reinstatement of his diplomatic visa. But the Gujarati community has taken up the cause of getting Modi back in the good graces of the U.S., Barai said.

"We do want to do it, and someday we will do it, and we will do it for our satisfaction," Barai said.

Yet, not all Indian Americans are convinced Modi's government has done enough to secure justice for victims of the riots.

To date, nobody has been held accountable for the Gujarat genocide, said Rajinder Singh Mago, a leader in the suburban Sikh American community and a member of the Palatine Gurudwara and Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago.

"No government official or person in power should be above the law," said Mago, who lives near St. Charles.

"There should be some lesson taught to perpetrators of these crimes," he said. "They should be brought to shame. The world has become smaller, interconnected through commerce, business and humanity. They should realize that it's a global village and there are people who are watching."

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