1 of 6 | Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the White House on Wednesday evening. Photo by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi/Twitter
June 21 (UPI) -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his state visit to the White House on Wednesday as more than 70 Democrats called on President Joe Biden to confront the leader on human rights.
Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, hosted the Asian leader at the White House on Wednesday evening for a private dinner during which they had "a great conversation on several subjects," Modi tweeted.
According to the White House, the dinner featured "a few of the president's favorite foods, including pasta and ice cream."
The leaders took in what the White House described as a musical tribute to the regions of India performed by youth dancers. And the Bidens presented Modi with an official gift of a handmade, antique American book galley from the 20th century.
Biden was also to gift the prime minister a vintage American camera and an archival facsimile print of George Eastman's patent of the first Kodak camera, along with a book on American wildlife photography. The first lady presented Modi with a signed, first edition copy of Collected Poems of Robert Frost.
Modi's trip is intended to reaffirm ties between India and the United States as Washington shores up its military presence throughout Asia in response to increasing aggressions by Russia and China.
However, government violence and other humanitarian abuses in India prompted a letter from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and more than 70 of their colleagues, urging Biden to bring up human rights during his sit-down with Modi.
"As the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy, the United States and India have forged a close relationship based on strategic interests and shared democratic values. India is an important member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the 'Quad') and a crucial partner for stability in the Indo-Pacific," the members wrote, accusing Modi's government of targeting minorities, dissidents, religious figures, civic organizations and journalists amid growing restrictions on press freedoms and Internet access.
"As longtime supporters of a strong U.S.-India relationship, we also believe that friends can and should discuss their differences in an honest and forthright way. That is why we respectfully request that -- in addition to the many areas of shared interests between India and the U.S. -- you also raise directly with Prime Minister Modi areas of concern."
In a statement released before his arrival, Modi made no mention of human rights but instead focused on economic opportunities and maintaining security on the Indian subcontinent in partnership with the United States, Australia and Japan.
"This visit will be an opportunity to enrich the depth and diversity of our partnership," Modi said, adding he would also meet with other administration officials to improve his country's cooperation with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, an initiative launched by Biden in 2022.
At least two other lawmakers said they intended to skip a planned address by Modi before Congress in light of ongoing oppression in his country.
"Prime Minister Modi's government has repressed religious minorities, emboldened violent Hindu nationalist groups and targeted journalists/human rights advocates with impunity," Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote on Twitter. "I will NOT be attending Modi's speech."
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., also blasted Modi's upcoming appearance.
"It's shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation's capital," she said. "His long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims and religious minorities and censoring journalists is unacceptable."
Meanwhile Modi, in his statement, described relations with the United States as "multifaceted, with deepening engagements" across many sectors and acknowledged his country's deepening economic connection with America as it has become its largest trade partner in goods and services.
"We collaborate closely in science and technology, education, health, defense and security fields," he said, adding that the partnership has led to monumental gains for emerging technologies in the fields of space, biotech, telecommunications, quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence.
"Our two countries are also collaborating to further our shared vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific," he added.
"I am confident that my visit to the U.S. will reinforce our ties based on shared values of democracy, diversity and freedom," he said. "Together we stand stronger in meeting the shared global challenges."
Before meeting with Biden, Modi attended a celebration at United Nations headquarters in New York to mark the International Day of Yoga, which was first proposed by Modi in 2014 to bring awareness to the holistic practice.
Modi also visited the national Science Foundation in Alexandria, Va., with the U.S. first lady.
Biden and Modi have met several times since the Indian leader last came to Washington in September 2021, but there is no indication that Biden had ever discussed human rights with Modi during his presidency.
In May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the United States to add India to its list of countries guilty of committing severe violations of religious freedom.
Last April, Biden and Modi met virtually in a bid to shore up international support against Russia's war in Ukraine, as well as climate matters.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also did not mention human rights in a May statement setting up Modi's latest visit, saying only that the leaders would discuss the strategic partnership, jobs, healthcare, climate change and expanding education exchange programs.
"The visit will strengthen our two countries' shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defense, clean energy and space," Jean-Pierre said.
The president and first lady plan to honor Modi with a state dinner on Thursday night.
After departing Washington, Modi is expected to travel to Cairo for a state visit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who visited India earlier this year.