Hundreds, mostly Indian Americans, gather in the State Capitol rotunda on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 , in St. Paul, to protest against policies in India they say target and discriminate against Muslims. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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When the St. Paul City Council considers symbolic resolutions condemning activity in other parts of the world, it’s rare that the measures spark controversy.

But late Wednesday, councilors delayed a vote for two weeks on a resolution denouncing the “Islamophobic ideology” of India’s prime minister and ruling party. 

Council Member Jane Prince is lead sponsor of a resolution expressing opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies, and in particular two laws that local advocates say discriminate against the country’s substantial Muslim citizens. Prince worked on the resolution with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN).

However, Shanti Shah, the head of government relations and civic engagement for the India Association of Minnesota, said she and other members of the group were surprised at the resolution’s strong language, and wanted to provide input before the City Council voted. 

Prince said President Donald Trump’s February visit to India helped inspire her to write the resolution.  

“I have worked with CAIR on a number of issues, and this has been brought to my attention,” she said. “I was also really struck when President Trump visited India this year, and his visit seemed to spread anti-Muslim violence.”

Prince is referring to mob violence in Delhi, India’s capital, in early March that left more than 50 people dead. It came after Trump, during his visit, strongly praised India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist policies have been condemned by Muslims and human rights activists across the world.

About five months before Trump’s visit, Modi’s ruling party stripped the disputed Kashmir region of its semi-autonomy and placed its political leaders under house arrest, launched a security lockdown and communications blackout. Kashmir is a Himalayan region of more than seven million people, the majority of whom are Muslims, that both India and Pakistan claim as their own. 

Particularly controversial is India’s recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows a pathway to citizenship for refugees from the Muslim majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims from eligibility. This, coupled with a National Registry of Citizens that forces hundreds of thousands of Muslims to prove their citizenship or face being sent to detention centers, has led to condemnation of the country’s ruling government. 

CAIR-Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein, who worked on the resolution with Prince, said the human rights issue in India has major implications for cities like St. Paul that trade with India.

“If the marginalization continues, we could wake up to a day where our businesses are gravely impacted, our supply lines are impacted, because we have not been paying attention to what the [BJP] and the Modi government have been doing to target Muslims and minorities with this citizenship law,” he said. 

Shah, of the India Association of Minnesota, questioned the wisdom of St. Paul speaking out forcefully against another country’s internal policies. She said doing so without allowing more of the Indian American community to provide feedback could harm the whole community. 

“If we are going to do it for India, are we going to do it for the next country and the next country in the countries where people are not being treated well?” she said. 

Some of the written comments submitted to St. Paul City Council on the resolution also reflect this reasoning. 

“There are extremists on both sides of the issue and you should not pander to either one,” read one email from Samachar, who sent the comment without revealing a last name to Council Member Dai Thao. “What you should be celebrating is the rich history of religious tolerance in India.”

During the council meeting, Council Member Chris Tolbert referred to the situation in India as “a very complex international issue.”

He called for City Council to instead focus on “people who have lost their jobs” during the COVID-19 pandemic and Asian Americans “facing discrimination right here at home.”

During the meeting, Prince presented a new draft of the resolution that she said dropped some of the language she’s heard objections to over the past week. In particular, she struck a section denouncing Modi and the BJP for advocating the “creation of a militant Hindu state.” 

About 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu. Roughly 14 percent of India identifies as Muslim. 

Tolbert presented a motion to delay the vote until May 20, arguing that council members needed more time to view Prince’s amended resolution. His motion passed 6-1, with only Prince voting no.

Prince argued that it was urgent to consider her motion. Some of the council members who voted to delay the vote agreed. Thao, for example, spoke of his own experiences as a Hmong refugee. 

“When you’re the one that has less power and you’re the one that’s oppressed, you really do need help from other countries and governments to help you seek justice wherever you are in the world,” he said. “I think we’re taking a small step in that direction with this resolution.” 

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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...