US President, PM Modi show unity at Houston rally; protesters raise rights of Kashmiris outside venue

US President Donald Trump participates in the “Howdy Modi” event with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas, US. – Agencies

US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared a stage and showered each other with praise at a “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, while protesters gathered outside to raise their voice for residents of occupied Kashmir who have been under a lockdown for 49 days.

Hundreds of people belonging to various ethnicities came out to hold an “anti-Modi demonstration” outside NRG Stadium, where they called attention to the “racist Modi regime” and its ongoing human rights violations in India-occupied Jammu and Kashmir.

“People of every race, colour, gender, and age have taken to the streets to condemn the acts of Modi’s racist regime. The mass protest stands against the supremacist government’s brutal interference in Kashmir,” a post on Twitter by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf said.

A large number of Sikh community members have gathered to protest Modi's actions in occupied Kashmir. — Sana Mateen
A large number of Sikh community members have gathered to protest Modi’s actions in occupied Kashmir.

One of the participants, Maria Kari, said that buses had been arranged to go around the Houston area to pick up protesters.

“There are at least three groups that have organised protest rallies,” said Kari. “A lot of Muslims and Pakistanis have gathered here. Tons in fact.”

The crowds beat drums, chanted slogans and some used rap lyrics as a way to communicate their message, calling for world leaders to end the suffering of Kashmiris.

Last month, the Indian government repealed Article 370 of its constitution, stripping occupied Kashmir of its special status, and imposed a strict lockdown and communications blackout in the region that has snapped off ordinary people’s internet and mobile telephone service across much of occupied Kashmir. The lockdown entered its 49th day on Sunday.

Thousands have also been reportedly arrested or illegally detained in the disputed territory.

Trade tensions simmer

Inside the stadium, deafening drums marked the entrance of President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi as they clasped hands and walked across the stage, sending a message of unity between the world’s two largest democracies despite trade tensions.

Instead of dwelling on trade, Trump highlighted the growth of US exports to India, the billions of dollars India is spending on US-made defence equipment and joint military exercises with New Delhi.

“India has never invested in the United States like it is doing today,” Trump said, adding that “we’re doing the same thing in India.” The president also discussed border security, an important campaign issue for Texas, which shares a border with Mexico.

“We are taking unprecedented action to secure our southern border and stop illegal immigration,” Trump said.

About 50,000 Indian Americans attended the rally, where the crowd chanted “Modi! Modi! Modi!” as he took the stage to introduce Trump as “my friend, a friend of India, a great American president.”

Modi even used Trump’s political slogan to say the president had a strong resolve to “make America great again.”

“When I met him for the first time, he said to me ‘India has a true friend in the White House,’” Modi said.

“Mr President, this morning in Houston, you can hear the heartbeat of this great partnership in this celebration of the world’s two largest democracies.”

Trump said Modi invited him to the rally — one of the largest US gatherings of the Indian diaspora in history — when they met last month in France, and Trump told reporters on Sunday that “I love India,” explaining his decision to attend.

Sunday marked their third meeting in as many months and their first time together on stage. The leaders, who seem to have developed a rapport, are to meet again on Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Modi, 68, won the biggest re-election India has seen in years after some 600 million Indians cast ballots across the country earlier this year.

At the UN, Trump also scheduled a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan, who told the president recently that he would welcome his help mediating the Kashmir dispute.

Trump said US-India bonds are expanding, but tensions over India’s trade surplus with the US are simmering.

In June, the US cancelled India’s special trade privileges that had allowed India to export certain goods with lower tariffs. India responded by slapping tariffs on more than two dozen US goods.

The US and India are discussing ways to negotiate at least a partial trade deal, which would let the president score a victory as he campaigns for re-election in November 2020. A partial deal could include Washington reinstating India’s special tariff status if New Delhi gives the US concessions related to access to Indian markets, possibly in dairy and medical devices.

Several unresolved issues are thwarting efforts to sign a larger deal. The US wants India to buy more American products to reduce its trade surplus with the United States, which today is some $24 billion a year.