Populists Trump and Modi vow relentless fight on extremists at mass rally
U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday declared themselves united in a relentless fight against "terrorism", vowing a close, personal alliance in front of tens of thousands of Indian-Americans.
The two leaders, like-minded nationalists fond of fiery rallies and sceptical of traditional media, heaped praise on each other in an unusual joint appearance inside a football stadium in Houston.
To the bhangra beats of four drummers in saffron turbans, Trump in his dark suit and Modi in a yellow kurta and vest made a grand entrance with arms clenched together to ecstatic cheers from a crowd estimated by organisers at 50,000.
Trump won his biggest applause when he told the crowd, many wearing the saffron of India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, "We are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism."
Taking the flavour of one of Trump's own boisterous rallies, Modi later asked the crowd to give a standing ovation to Trump for his stance.
Trump has stood by the Indian leader during controversial decisions this year, including his revocation of autonomy for Muslim-majority Kashmir and his order for jets to enter Pakistani territory in response to a suicide bombing.
India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price
India and Pakistan continue to clash over Kashmir, a volatile Himalayan region that has been experiencing an armed insurgency for nearly three decades. Many Kashmiris are now fed up with both Islamabad and New Delhi. By Shamil Shams
An unprecedented danger? On 27 February , Pakistan's military said that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets over disputed Kashmir. A Pakistani military spokesman said the jets were shot down after they'd entered Pakistani airspace. It is the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have conducted air strikes against each other
India drops bombs inside Pakistan: the Pakistani military has released this image to show that Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistani territory for the first time since the countries went to war in 1971. India said the air strike was in response to a recent suicide attack on Indian troops based in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan said there were no casualties and that its airforce repelled India's aircraft
No military solution: some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the Kashmir valley. A number of rights organisations are demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate
No end to the violence: on 14 February, at least 41 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide bombing near the capital of India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jihadi group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility. The attack, the worst on Indian troops since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, spiked tensions and triggered fears of an armed confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers
A bitter conflict: since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir – a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part
India strikes down a militant rebellion: in October 2016, the Indian military launched an offensive against armed rebels in Kashmir, surrounding at least 20 villages in Shopian district. New Delhi accused Islamabad of backing the militants, who cross over the Pakistani-Indian "Line of Control" and launch attacks on India's paramilitary forces
Death of a Kashmiri separatist: the security situation in the Indian part of Kashmir deteriorated after the killing of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July 2016. Protests against Indian rule and clashes between separatists and soldiers have claimed hundreds of lives since then
The Uri attack: in September 2016, Islamist militants killed at least 17 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in India-administered Kashmir. The Indian army said the rebels had infiltrated the Indian part of Kashmir from Pakistan, with initial investigations suggesting that the militants belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which has been active in Kashmir for over a decade
Rights violations: Indian authorities banned a number of social media websites in Kashmir after video clips showing troops committing grave human rights violations went viral on the Internet. One such video that showed a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep – apparently as a human shield – generated outrage on social media
Demilitarisation of Kashmir: those in favour of an independent Kashmir want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future. "It is time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally supervised referendum," said Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistani Kashmir
Secession not an option: most Kashmir observers don't see a referendum happening in the near future. They say that while the Indian strategy to deal strictly with militants and separatists in Kashmir has partly worked out, sooner or later New Delhi will have to find a political solution to the crisis. Secession, they say, does not stand a chance
With Trump watching in the front row and listening to the translation, Modi made clear reference to rival Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir and has sought to rally international attention over the Himalayan territory.
Modi said he was seeking equal status and development for Kashmir, adding that his actions were "causing discomfort to some people unable to manage their own country" and who "nurture terrorism."
"These people have put their hatred of India at the centre of their political agenda," Modi said.
India accuses Pakistan of arming Islamic militants who have fought its rule in Kashmir. But India has also faced strong criticism from human rights activists for shutting down virtually all Internet and cellular communications across much of Kashmir.
Protesters gathered outside of the NRG Stadium with placards and shirts that said, "Free Kashmir" and accused Modi of violating religious freedom – a cause frequently evoked by the Trump administration.
The event – dubbed, with a Texan twang, "Howdy, Modi!" – was billed as the largest gathering ever by a foreign leader other than the pope in the United States.
Hoping to ensure that it remains bipartisan, organisers also invited prominent Democrats.
Steny Hoyer, the second-top Democrat in the House of Representatives, pledged that both major U.S. parties wanted strong relations with India – but gently voiced concern, pointing to India's historic "respect for secularism and human rights."
"Americans and Indians must strive to make our promises and aspirations a reality for all our citizens," he said with Modi at his side.
Presidential contender Bernie Sanders, who did not attend, was more direct, saying that Trump showed a "deafening silence" on the clampdown in Kashmir.
"I know that when a president stays silent in the face of religious persecution, repression and brutality, the dangerous message this sends to authoritarian leaders around the world is, 'Go ahead, you can get away with it,'" Sanders wrote in the Houston Chronicle.
Trump grinned broadly while Modi heaped praise on him, complementing him on his wit and even invoking the president's "Make America Great Again" slogan as he hailed the state of the U.S. economy. But Indian-Americans voted overwhelmingly for his rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Houston, one of the most ethnically diverse cites in the United States, is ground zero in the Democratic Party's inroads in Texas, a must-win state for Trump next year.
Speaking of his record as if on the campaign trail, Trump made no mention of many Indians' concerns over U.S. visa policy – but highlighted his efforts to turn back undocumented immigrants from Central America.
"We are going to take care of our Indian-American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country," Trump said. Hardly known for his celebrations of ethnic diversity, Trump said to Indian-Americans, "We love you."
"You enrich our culture, you uphold our values, you uplift our communities and you are truly proud to be American – and we are proud to have you as Americans," he said.
Sporting a vest in yellow embroidery from Modi's home state of Gujarat as well as a cap in the Indian tricolor, Bhavin Parikh of Sacramento, California said he wanted to show support for Modi and called the event "historic" due to Trump's presence. But he demurred on whether the gathering indicated backing Trump.
"It is not a question of Democrat or Republican. It's the American president supporting the Indian prime minister," he said. (AFP)