A decision by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to honour Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his campaign to improve sanitation in India has come under fire from activists and members of civil society.
The award comes in recognition of the Hindu nationalist leader’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission) programme under which millions of toilets have been built across India, where open defecation is a major problem.
A petition circulated by a group of south Asian American academics, lawyers and activists has called on the Gates Foundation, known to be philanthropic, to rescind its decision, citing human rights violations committed under Modi rule.
“While we understand the award was given for [Modi’s sanitation initiative], it nevertheless seems inconsistent to give a humanitarian award to a man whose nickname is the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’,” the statement said.
If Modi is honored, it would:
*diminish human rights
*demoralize Indian civil society & those fighting for justice
*send the message that minority rights don’t matter in India
— Arjun Sethi (@arjunsethi81) September 11, 2019
Modi has been accused of inciting and condoning the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than a thousand Muslims were killed during his time as chief minister of the western state. However, Indian courts have cleared him of complicity in modern India’s worst anti-Muslim violence.
As a result of the Gujarat violence, the US government – under its International Religious Freedom Act – denied Modi a visa in 2005. The ban remained in place until 2014, the year he was elected as India’s prime minister.
The petition, which at the time of publication has garnered more than 95,000 signatures, said that the award “could not have come at a more awkward time”, pointing to the current crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir and the citizenship exercise that has excluded nearly two million people in the northeastern state of Assam.
The Hindu nationalist government has been accused by critics of pursuing exclusionary policies against minorities in India as part of its far-right agenda.
Last month, India stripped Kashmir of its special status and subsequently imposed a crippling security lockdown in the Muslim-majority region.
“In Kashmir, more than 800,000 Indian armed forces have kept eight million Kashmiris detained in their own homes without phones or internet services for the last month,” the petition said.
“Since the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], Modi’s party came to power in 2014, the use of organised mobs and militias have undermined the rule of law so frequently that the Indian Supreme Court warned that these ‘horrendous acts of moboracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land’.”
Gates Foundation defends its decision
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Gates Foundation stood by its decision to honour Modi “for the progress India is making in improving sanitation” as part of its drive in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“Sanitation is a key factor in improving the health and wellbeing of millions of people, especially women and children,” the foundation said.
“Before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do,” the statement continued, adding that the mission can serve as a model for other countries struggling with poor sanitation.
Yet critics have slammed the foundation’s rationale, arguing that hygiene and cleanliness cannot compensate for rights abuses.
“Modi’s sanitation campaign has no doubt benefitted people, but how can access to a clean toilet outweigh the violence and persecution they may face in the rest of their lives?” an opinion editorial in The Washington Post asked.
“If the Gates Foundation really wants to amplify sanitation efforts in India, it should give the award to community workers instead of a far-right nationalist.”
Al Jazeera reached out to several BJP leaders for comments but received no response.