NEW DELHI: Washington followed New York with Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming under the eye of controversy as Sikh organisations held a massive court hearing in the Lafayette lawns just outside the White House to “try” him for the Gujarat violence even as his Indian American admirers gathered with flags and slogans in his support. Even as experts debate the sum and substance of the official meetings between PM Modi and US President Barack Obama, the human rights issue dominated the discourse and coverage of the visit inside the US, and in the international media.

It was a get-to-know you visit clearly, as the American reported “fraught with awkward undertones.” The human rights issues raised through the visit by civil society groups in New York and Washington, a Manhattan court summons on the basis of a petition by a rights organisation the American Justice Centre, and a letter by several US Congressmen to the US President, became a central point in the coverage of the visit in the US in the American and international media.

Reporters raised the issue with US officials and Josh Earnest, White House Secretary informed them that “human rights and the importance of inclusive governance were part of the discussions between the president and the prime minister today.”

The ‘hearing’ and the subsequent ‘indictment’ of the Indian Prime Minister came just as he was meeting with US President Barack Obama inside the White House from where both emerged with promises and a vision statement ‘Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go’ that had the Indian delegation agreeing to much of what the US had wanted. Of course the big ticket items like the withdrawal of trade barriers remain promises at this stage, as does the civilian nuclear agreement, but according to experts here, Prime Minister Modi was able to convince President Obama of his good intent on all these issues. Hence the sudden walk around the Martin Luther King memorial, the only gesture indicating some level of warmth, in a dry two day run.

The bilateral meetings were described by some American newspapers as a “protocol disaster’ in that the guest of honour sat before an empty plate and a glass of lukewarm water while the hosts and his delegation enjoyed delicious gourmet meals. PM Modi’s fast prevented him from partaking of the dinner and the lunch at the White House leading to the question as to why the meetings had been fixed over meals that he could not be part of. The dinner in which only 20 guests including the delegation were present was a marked contrast from similar events hosted by President Obama for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The First Lady Michelle Obama was also not present at the dinner, a missing gesture that was very noticeable.

Hence the walk around the Memorial became a little more important that it would otherwise have been, as it was the only gesture that the US President made outside the well laid down, rather bare protocol for PM Modi. As former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor wrote in his blog, a sentiment supported by several foreign policy experts here, US nuclear businesses and pharmaceutical companies - Mr Modi had little to offer but words. On WTO, his pieties about India's food security masked a cynical devotion to the profits of the middlemen who are a reliable vote-bank for the BJP; on nuclear liability, the onerous clauses in the current law had been introduced by his own party in Parliament. On pharma, Mr Modi's surrender to American dictates had already been announced before he got there, much to the dismay of Indian patients who will now have to pay much for patented American medicines that they have been getting in generic form at a hundredth the price.

In turn, India too had hoped for some good news from the US, notably in willingness to aid Indian defence production by offering state-of-the-art equipment to Indian manufacturers, and the transfer of environmentally-friendly green technologies at an affordable price. On neither issue was any concrete announcement forthcoming.”

Outside the White House in the Lafayette Park the controversy over PM Modi’s resulted in yet another confrontation between his supporters and those who had set up an elaborate court room for a ‘hearing’ on the Gujarat violence. The night before members of the Kashmiri American Council led by Ghulam Nabi Fai confronted PM Modi’s supporters at a sit in, while the two leaders were getting to know each other over the private dinner.

On September 30, however, there was high drama and a great deal of publicity for the Sikh organisations and the hundreds who attended their ‘hearing’ on the Gujarat violence. The Sikhs for Justice has been demanding justice for the 1984 riots in Delhi and other parts of India and took the lead for an elaborate one hour ‘trial’.

The Citizens Court had a grand jury of 24 persons reflecting the multi-diversity of America. The judge was a white American. An effigy of the Prime Minister was placed in the dock. The prosecutor was an Indian-American lawyer. It was a professional setting being filmed avidly by television crews and journalists.

The proceedings began at 1.30 while the Prime Minister was having his non-lunch just some metres away in the White House. The prosecutor read out the charges against him, and said that the same had been handed over to the Indian embassy in Washington several days ago. All charges related to the Gujarat violence. The lady judge then asked the grand jury to give their views, and the unanimous view was that he was guilty of the charges levelled against him as was the purpose of the mock hearing.

Significantly, and it is not being read as a coincidence by the American media, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission also decided to screen The Widow Colony, a documentary amplifying the voices of Sikh women widowed during the November 1984 violence on the same day as the bilateral meeting. The pressure on the human rights front was added to by eleven Congressmen from both the Republican and Democrat parties who urged the President in a letter to “discuss religious inclusion and the protection of religious minorities in India” with PM Modi. They noted that there had been an “an increase in violence against Muslims and Christians in the first hundred days of [his] term [that had] echoes the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat, which happened while Prime Minister Modi was Chief Minister of the region.”