HOUSTON (CN) – The U.S. denied Narendra Modi a visa for years over concerns he was complicit in Hindu mob killings of Muslims. But on Sunday, amid a crisis in the disputed Kashmir region, India’s prime minister will get a hero’s welcome in Houston from 50,000 Indian-Americans and President Donald Trump.
Tickets to the “Howdy, Modi!” summit at NRG Stadium in Houston sold out in three weeks, according to the nonprofit organizer Texas India Forum. The group’s excitement is palpable.
“Filling the giant stadium to capacity, the live audience will be the largest gathering ever for an elected foreign leader visiting the U.S. other than the pope,” spokeswoman Preeti Dawra said at a press briefing Friday.
Both Modi and Trump will speak after a 90-minute “cultural program” with music and dancing from 400 performers, broadcast to 2 billion people worldwide, Dawra said.
But there will no live streams in Kashmir. It’s not possible there since Aug. 5, when Modi’s government sent troops into the state on the border with Pakistan, and imposed an internet and cellphone blockade and a curfew.
Days later, India’s President Ram Nath Kovind signed a decree revoking an order that had given Kashmir autonomy and exempted it from laws passed by the Indian Parliament.
Representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, joined by two Kashmir natives, a lawyer and a doctor, said on a conference call with reporters Friday the communications blockade is just one facet of a human-rights crisis in Kashmir.
Attorney Mona Sahaf said she flew to Kashmir in early August to visit her mother.
“The military presence was everywhere,” she said. “There’s always a military presence in Kashmir, but there were more and there were checkpoints everywhere.”
“Once we got home that’s where we stayed. No internet. No phone. It’s the first time in living memory they cut landlines,” she added.
Sahaf said she would yell at her children in the car to sit down and shut up as they approached checkpoints manned by troops with rifles.
Most of the stores are closed and no one is going to school, said Sahaf, a Justice Department attorney in Washington, D.C.
“If you protest you literally fear being arrested or shot,” she said.
Dr. Wasim Dar lives in Houston where he said he’s part of a tight-knit group of Kashmiri expatriates.
A professor of surgery at the UT Health McGovern Medical School, Dar said sick people in Kashmir are suffering under the siege.
“People can’t get ambulances to get to the hospital, or dialysis because hospitals are bereft of staff and medicines and desperate people are having to fly out of Kashmir to get medicine. It’s really gut wrenching,” he said.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said the situation in Kashmir – a region with a large Muslim population that has been split between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947 – is part of a bigger problem playing out across India under the reign of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which Modi belongs to.
Since BJP became the leading party in 2014, Sifton said, there’s been an increase of attacks on Muslims and Christians and a crackdown on free speech and journalists.
“There’s been a huge increase in vigilante violence by mobs associated with BJP. Mobs that in the name of protecting cows have attacked Muslims,” said Sifton. Hindus believe cows are sacred.
Modi has shut out media access: He does not give press conferences or travel with a press pool, Sifton said.
“He’s really in a bubble back in Delhi, his advisers don’t give him news about what other governments think. … This is a moment for Modi to burst outside of his bubble and hear some criticism about what’s happening in Kashmir,” Sifton said of the rally in Houston, where Kashmiri protesters will be out in force.
Modi will undoubtedly revel in Trump’s warm welcome given his history with the U.S. government. George W. Bush’s administration in 2005 denied Modi a visa, which he’d requested so he could come to New York and give a speech to an audience of Indian-Americans.
Modi was chief minister of the Indian state Gujarat from 2001 until his election to prime minister in 2014.
In 2002, Hindu mobs in Gujarat, angry over an incident in which 58 Hindu pilgrims died when the train they were on was set on fire, descended on Muslim towns. They raped and beat Muslims and torched their homes, killing more than 1,000.
The State Department denied Modi a visa due to its belief he tacitly approved of the attacks and could have stopped them. The Obama administration gave him a visa after he became prime minister.
The Texas India Forum did not immediately respond Friday to questions about Modi’s treatment of Muslims and the lockdown in Kashmir.