Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
September 26, 2019; New York Times, “Opinion”

Sabah Hamid, formerly an India-based program officer for the Gates Foundation, has resigned in protest over the organization’s decision to honor Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, with one of its Global Goals Awards for a project that claims to have built 100 million new toilets in India since 2015.

Hamid says that in making the award, the foundation is helping normalize a leader who is guilty of serious human rights violations on the basis of an isolated initiative which many critics believe to be overblown in terms of effectiveness and reach.

Hamid says that she joined—and resigned—from the Gates Foundation for the same reason: “Because I truly believed in its mission—that every life has equal value and all people deserve healthy lives.”

By presenting 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 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.

Hamid details some of the prime minister’s most egregious violations, ending with what the United Nations (UN) calls the “collective punishment” of the people of Kashmir, reminding us that ‘seven million people are currently under virtual incarceration in Indian-occupied Kashmir. That is my home, and those are my people.”

On August 5th, 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 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 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.

Hamid adds that the foundation’s defense—that the award is given “specifically for achievements in sanitation”—is dead wrong in that context and in the context of this week’s meetings at the UN. She writes:

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?

—Ruth McCambridge