Nearly 400 people gathered in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, on Sept. 22, 2019, to condemn human rights abuses and security crackdowns in India. Credit: Mukhtar M. Ibrahim | Sahan Journal

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After delaying a vote for two weeks, the St. Paul City Council approved a measure denouncing India’s prime minister and ruling political party for its “Islamophobic” and “exclusionary ideology.” 

While gaining support from organizations like the Minnesota chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations, World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and Amnesty International, the measure drew opposition from groups like the Hindu American Foundation, the India Association of Minnesota and the Alliance for Persecuted Peoples Worldwide. 

The symbolic resolution passed on a 5-0 vote with Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Member Chris Tolbert abstaining. Both cited the complex nature of political affairs in India and the amount of concern they heard from members of the local Indian American community, but also the council’s “shared values” that oppose discrimination against religious minorities. 

“I am not ready to vote for this today, but I certainly don’t want to vote against it,” Brendmoen said. 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: MINNESOTA PROTESTERS SLAM INDIA’S NEW CITIZENSHIP LAW AS BIASED AGAINST MUSLIMS

Tolbert said his office had received 1,400 emails on the matter and that he didn’t have enough time to absorb the issue and talk to enough people to hear their concerns. At the same time, he said he didn’t want to downplay an issue of international human rights. 

“These complex international issues are difficult to fully understand and fully have the conversations on during normal times,” he said. “In the midst of a pandemic and economic recession, where there is a lot of uncertainty, there’s a lot of change in circumstances and there’s a deadly virus in our community, it’s even more difficult.” 

Council members Nelsie Yang, Dai Thao and Rebecca Noecker spoke at length of their support for the measure. 

“We are choosing to not be quiet and to stay silent because I feel like doing that actually comes from a really big place of privilege,” Yang said. 

Thao emphasized that the resolution was not an attack on the Indian community any more than criticisms of President Trump are an attack on him. 

“This resolution is not a personal attack on any individual, but a way for us to move forward our values and protecting our religions and all folks,” he said.  

Noecker added that the council members had probably received more emails on the resolution than most of the issues the council votes on, but said “just because something is controversial doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” 

“There are always people who can argue for discriminatory policies,” she said. “That’s why discriminatory policies are allowed to exist.”

Council Member Jane Prince, who sponsored the resolution, said the issue ultimately affects local residents. 

“The things that are happening in India now are happening to family members of people living in St. Paul,” she said. 

At issue are the policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They include the country’s recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows for a pathway to citizenship for people fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims from eligibility. Critics say the act’s exclusion of Muslims is discriminatory and even against the country’s constitution. But supporters point out that the countries listed are majority-Muslim and that the act is meant to protect religious minorities in those countries.

Also at issue is India’s National Register of Citizens, a list of citizens that the Modi government compiled in the country’s northeastern state of Assam. Two million people, including roughly 600,000 Muslims, were not on the list and had to prove their citizenship. If they can’t, they face being sent to a detention center. 

Critics fear the NRC will soon be imposed on a national level and, coupled with the Citizenship Amendment Act, wreak havoc on the lives of the country’s Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of India’s population. 

Prince’s initial resolution denounced Modi for “creating a militant Hindu state,” but she dropped some of the harsher language after hearing from groups like Indian Alliance of Minnesota. IAM still called on the council to delay the resolution and give the community more time to discuss its concerns.

Shortly before the vote, the City Council unanimously approved another measure instructing city staff to establish a formal process to deal with similar controversial human rights resolutions in the future. Brendmoen, who sponsored the measure, said the intent is to allow more community input. 

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Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...