How Serious Is US Court Summons Against Modi?

Besides talking business, the underlying objective of Modi’s US visit is an image makeover. By wiping out the image of an insidious riot-monger, he is keen on presenting himself as a progressive leader of India who is putting all his due diligence towards holistic growth of the nation. His 100-day report card does sing praises for him for bringing radical changes in governance and uplifting the morale of the nation’s economy.

In the midst of this upbeat mood, the news of a New York court issuing summons against Modi for his alleged role in 2002 Gujarat riots has somehow come as a dampener. The summons was issued by the US Federal Court based on the lawsuit filed by some riot survivors and the New York-based human rights organization – American Justice Center (AJC). The reason why some of the political observers are considering it as a handiwork of anti-Modi groups is the timing of the summons – just a day ahead of Modi’s maiden trip to the US as a Prime Minister.

What’s this lawsuit all about?

The lawsuit has been filed against Modi under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). As per ATCA, the federal courts have the authority to hear lawsuits filed by US residents for crimes committed in violation of international law outside the US. That way, the US court has the jurisdiction to summon an Indian.

As per media reports, the 28-page complaint levels charges against Modi for “committing crimes against humanity, extra-judicial killings, torture and inflicting mental and physical trauma on the victims.” The silver lining amidst all these is the fact that the sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from legal actions and summons can’t be served on them personally. The AJC is of the opinion that Modi will be immune from the acts he has committed as a PM “but not for the acts that he has committed as the Chief Minister of Gujarat when riots happened.”

Implications of US Court summons against Modi

To answer that question one has to understand how things can play out under different circumstances. Although the Foreign Ministry has dismissed the summons as “frivolous” and a “malicious attempt” to divert the attention from Modi’s bilateral initiatives, yet the relentlessness of the AJC suggests that the group is going to pursue this case every time Modi lands on the American soil.

Modi’s arrival in the US has provided a special opportunity to charge him under the ATCA and TVPA. In a latest development, the AJC has offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who can serve the summons to Modi during his public engagements in the US. The rights group has reportedly hired process servers to serve the summons.

In case the summons is delivered to the PM and the latter fails to respond within 21 days, the Federal Court will announce its “default judgment”, which translates into a simple possibility – 2002 riots might be declared as a ‘Genocide’ as per US and international law.

It’s not just the AJC that Modi needs to be cautious about. Another human rights group ‘Sikhs for Justice’ has elaborate plans to hold a “Citizens’ Court” before the White House at a time when he would be holding meeting with Obama. It’s the same group that had obtained summons against Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi in connection with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. It has also come to pass that Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA) is another US-based group that is gearing up to show Modi black flags during the public reception organized by the Indian-American community in Manhattan on September 28.