A trio of Nobel laureates has called on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to rescind an award to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, amid mounting concern over human rights, and the situation in Kashmir.
Mr Modi, who was this spring elected for a second term with an increased majority, and who over the weekend held a major rally in Houston where Donald Trump was the special guest, is due to receive an award for his work on expanding sanitation in India as the United Nations holds its General Assembly in New York.
But activists who accuse Mr Modi of either orchestrating or permitting the murder of hundreds of Muslims in the state of Gujarat, and more recently failing to stop lynchings of Muslims by so-called “cow protection” vigilantes, say the foundation is making an error.
Three Nobel prize laureates - Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian activist, Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland who was honoured in 1976, and Yemini journalist Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman - wrote an open letter urging the foundation to change its decision.
“We were deeply disturbed to discover that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be giving an award to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi later this month,” they wrote. “Under prime minister Modi’s leadership, India has descended into dangerous and deadly chaos that has consistently undermined human rights, democracy. This is particularly troubling to us as the stated mission of your foundation is to preserve life and fight inequity.”
They added: “The situation in the state of Assam and Indian-administered Kashmir are cause for grave concern as well. The organiation “Genocide Watch” has issued not one, but two alerts for India in these regions.”
For many years, Mr Modi was boycotted by the West for what it saw as his complicity in the killing of hundreds of Muslins in 2002, following a fire on a train of Hindu pilgrims that killed 59 people. Mr Modi was never charged with any crime and has denied urging Hindus to turn on their Muslim neighbours.
In 2012, a probe established by India’s supreme court found no evidence against Mr Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat. In 2014, he was elected prime minister as the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People’s Party, won a massive landslide in that year’s general election.
While critics say he has overseen a crackdown on dissent and emboldened Hindu activists in India, supporters say he has made serious progress on addressing corruption. He has also spearheaded a project that has built 100m toilets over the last five years.
Earlier this year, Mr Modi ended the special status enjoyed by Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state, and locked up political leaders. Residents of Kashmir, a region that has long been fought over by both India and Pakistan, say a communications blockade has been imposed and internet access restricted.
On Sunday night, around 200 activists protested outside the Seattle headquarters of the Gates’ foundation, one of the most influential and powerful non-governmental groups in the world.
“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was established to promote humanitarian causes,” Maryam Gani, of the Seattle chapter of Stand with Kashmir, told The Independent. She said it was not correct for the group to give an award to a man who had been accused of involvement in human rights abuses.
“Sanitation is not more important than human lives,” she said.
On Sunday, Mr Modi and Mr Trump appeared at a rally in Texas – “Howdy, Modi” – attended by up to 50,000 people.
“I’m so thrilled to be here in Texas with one of America’s greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends, prime minister Modi of India,” said Mr Trump. Mr Modi said of Mr Trump: “From CEO to commander-in-chief, from boardrooms to the Oval Office, from studios to the global stage, he has left a lasting impact everywhere.”
The Indian government has yet to respond to the controversy. Efforts to contact the prime minister’s spokesman were not successful.
The foundation did not immediately respond to questions about the laureates’ demand the award be rescinded, or as to who decided to make the award.
In a statement issued to the New York Times, it said: “Globally, sanitation-related diseases kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of 5 every year.
“Yet despite its importance, sanitation has not received significant attention. A lot of governments are not willing to talk about it, in part because there are not easy solutions.’’