NEW DELHI — On Tuesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation presented Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, with one of its Global Goal Awards in New York. The Gates Foundation has chosen to honor Mr. Modi for his Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, or Clean India Mission, which claims to have built 100 million new toilets in India over the past five years.
The initiative is a commendable one, but its impact since its inception is open to question. More than 300 million Indians were still defecating in the open in 2017, according to the World Bank. The Clean India campaign claimed that from 2014 to 2018, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were fully or almost fully free from open defecation.
Data from independent sources tempers these claims significantly. A working paper published by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, which works on health in rural India, and Accountability Initiative, a research group at a leading Indian think tank, calculated that the percentage of people defecating in the open in those states had indeed gone down — from 77 percent in 2014 to 44 percent in 2018 — but not by nearly as much as the government claimed.
The campaign has also largely ignored the question of “manual scavenging,” the removal and disposal of human waste with bare hands by Dalit men and women. In the past three years, 88 sanitation workers died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers, according to Indian government data.
Bezwada Wilson, a renowned activist who has been fighting to end this repugnant practice, pointed out that Mr. Modi’s flagship program seems to be counting on the persistence of manual scavenging. A day after Mr. Modi received the award in New York, two young Dalits were killed for defecating in the open in Madhya Pradesh.
Along with other staff at the India office of the Gates Foundation, I first heard about Mr. Modi being considered for the award a few months ago. I did not realize that the decision had already been made. It took me until early August to raise my questions, but I saw very quickly that the foundation had taken the decision and considered it irrevocable. That this endorsement of Mr. Modi would not do the Gates Foundation any good did not seem to be up for discussion.
I had joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation because I truly believed in its mission — that every life has equal value and all people deserve healthy lives. I resigned from it for the exact same reason. By presenting Mr. Modi with this award, the Gates Foundation is going against its own core belief. It has the prerogative to interpret its own ideology as it sees fit — in this case in a very narrow manner — but I will continue to believe in the spirit of the words.
The Gates Foundation has chosen to celebrate a single, questionable initiative of Mr. Modi’s government. It has completely disregarded how his politics have filled the lives of marginalized communities in India and the territories it controls with fear and insecurity, let alone that he has transformed India into a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist state.
Mr. Modi does not deserve to be embraced. The United States, where Mr. Modi received the Gates award, refused him a visa in 2005 for “severe violations of religious freedom,” after a brutal pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat — where Mr. Modi was chief minister — left over a thousand dead. (The ban wasn’t lifted until Mr. Modi’s election as prime minister, in 2014.)
As of Sept. 1, almost two million people in the state of Assam have been rendered stateless. The updated list of citizens, known as the National Register of Citizenship, was created with a view to target “illegal immigration” from the neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to carry out the exercise across India and “remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” It is a clear threat against every Dalit, Muslim, Christian and Jewish citizen of the country — the absolute opposite of the Gates Foundation’s mission of considering all lives equal.
And as I write, Mr. Modi’s recent assault on Kashmir is foremost on my mind. Seven million people are currently under virtual incarceration in Indian-occupied Kashmir. That is my home, and those are my people. On Aug. 5, Mr. Modi’s government unilaterally abrogated the semiautonomous status of Kashmir after placing the valley of Kashmir under a military siege and cutting off phone, internet and television connections.
Despite Mr. Modi’s rhetoric about bringing greater economic growth to Kashmir, the suffering of the people of Kashmiris has only been exacerbated by his actions. By Tuesday evening, as the Gates Foundation presented the award to Mr. Modi in Manhattan, Kashmir completed 51 days of being cut off from the rest of the world. There are reports of illegal detention and torture of teenagers, of night raids terrorizing families, sparing no one.
Mr. Modi’s government is explicitly following what United Nations human rights experts have described as the “collective punishment” of the people of Kashmir. The lockdown and the communications blackout has made it difficult for patients to reach hospitals and access lifesaving drugs in time. And it has banned foreign reporters from Kashmir.
Several staff members at the Seattle and New Delhi offices of the foundation expressed their concerns about the decision to reward Mr. Modi, but the foundation publicly chose to normalize him. They claim that the award is “specifically for achievements in sanitation.”
As world leaders meet at the United Nations General Assembly this week and questions are raised about Kashmir and Mr. Modi’s policies in India, the Gates Foundation has provided him with a global platform to divert attention, to change the narrative. But the problem with the award wasn’t merely its timing, which made it a public relations disaster for the foundation. The decision to honor Mr. Modi would be wrong on any date.
The celebration of Mr. Modi by an organization that stands for the betterment of the most vulnerable simply cannot be justified. If major, powerful nonprofit organizations endorse such polarizing politicians, then who speaks for the vulnerable and the neglected?
The Gates Foundation has crossed the wide gulf between working with a regime and endorsing it. That is not the pragmatic agnosticism of an organization working with the government of the day, but a choice of siding with power. I will choose to walk a different path.