Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accorded a rousing welcome at the crowded NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Sunday where he will address Indian-American community along with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mr. Modi entered the stage with folded hands and bowed to the 50,000 strong audience, thanking them for such an amazing welcome.
The ‘Howdy Modi!’ event began with a Sikh kirtan and then saw performances by Bharatnatyam, Garba, Bhangra dancers, and even one performance by a Houston cheerleading team, which included the first Indian American in them, as well as a ‘Desi’ tap dancer. The theme of the community event was “Woven”, and a film protrayed the dual cultures and sometimes divided loyalties of being second and third generation Indian-American community members.
“The fact that President Trump is coming to this event is proof that our community has arrived, and is being recognised,” said Ankit Jain, who wore a Stetson hat to the event to emphasise that he is “Indian and American”.
Some diaspora members in Houston also stressed that the crowd present was bipartisan, and included Democrat and Republican supporters.
Others, however, felt that the event was, in fact, a political moment. “People in India should realise that contrary to what they think, the Republican party and President Trump are best for India-U.S. ties,” said Radha Dixit from the Indian-American Conservatives of Texas group.
Democratic leader and Senate Majority leader Steny Hoyer spoke first at the event, flanked by PM Modi. Making a significant reference to both Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr. Hoyer praised PM Nehru for his "vision of India as a secular democracy, where respect for pluralism and human rights safeguard all".
In fact, the American politicians present at the event were largely from the Republican party. Organisers had hoped for about 35 lawmakers at the event, but some hesitated after it was known that U.S. President Trump would attend, and about 24 lawmakers finally appeared on stage.
Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi was the only lawmaker of Indian-origin to attend. While Ami Bera, Tulsi Gabbard were unable to attend while others like Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal, who have been deeply critical of the Modi government’s recent actions over Article 370 in Kashmir and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, stayed away.
As Houston's NRG centre began to fill up with Indian-Americans, protestors also began to gather outside the venue. Some amongst the thin line of protestors on the sidewalk right outside the NRG stadium, welcomed an editorial by Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, published in the Houston Chronicle , that criticised the event.
"When President Trump meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, we will hear much about the friendship between the American and Indian peoples. However, there will be a deafening silence when it comes to a human rights crisis unfolding right before our eyes — and that is unacceptable,” Mr. Sanders wrote, in an the editorial, where he also criticised Pakistan for playing a “bad role in Kashmir.”
While a number of people were reportedly bussed in by separatist Khalistani and Kashmiri groups, as well as Pakistan-backed organisations, those belonging to the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA) held a press conference to say their coalition comprised activists from “Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Sikh and Christian groups”. , an American Jewish group “Jewish Voices for Peace” and African American minority groups like "Black lives Matter" as well. Houston police had set up strict barricades around the venue, and the AJA and held a rally with poetry and rap artists performing a short distance away from the venue.
Pandits, Sikhs, Bohras call on Modi
Ahead of the event, Mr. Modi met with a wide variety of minority groups in Houston, including Kashmiri pandits and Hindus, the Gujarati Bohra Muslim community, and the Sikh community. “The whole world is talking about you today,” Mr. Modi reportedly told the Kashmiri Pandits who met with him at Houston's Post Oak hotel on Saturday evening, referring to the government's revocation of Article 370.
At the venue, long lines of supporters and members of the Indian-American community gathered. Amongst them, Ramesh Modi, who was dressed to portray Mahatma Gandhi, with monocled glasses and a white dhoti and Bhavesh Jain dressed as a colorful Kathiawadi dancer.
One of the most powerful moments of the event however, remained inside the venue, when bhajan and gospel singers came together to perform a medley of “Vaishnava jan” and “Amazing grace” with images of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr on screens in the background, before Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump came on stage.