NEW YORK/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his maiden visit to the United States as India’s leader on Friday, facing an unwelcome reminder of his once-strained relations with his host nation: a lawsuit alleging he failed to stop anti-Muslim rioting in 2002.
Washington and New Delhi brushed off the suit brought in a U.S. court on the eve of Modi’s arrival, saying it would not affect the visit, which includes an address at the U.N. General Assembly in New York and meetings with President Barack Obama.
However, it made for an awkward start to a trip aimed at revitalizing a business and security relationship that both countries consider important, but which has been beset by peripheral squabbles and long failed to live up to its billing.
Before his May election, Modi was not welcome in the United States because of the riots in his home state of Gujarat, in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in reprisals after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire.
The Hindu nationalist Modi was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 under a U.S. law that bars entry to foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” However, Obama was quick to invite him after his election.
The Indian government called the lawsuit, filed on Thursday in a New York federal court by a little-known human rights group called American Justice Center, a “frivolous and malicious attempt to distract attention” from Modi’s visit.
The case appears largely symbolic and unlikely to bring any serious legal consequences. White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed that heads of government enjoyed immunity from U.S. lawsuits and said he did not think the issue would affect efforts to deepen a “highly valued” strategic partnership.
Analysts said the suit was a clear attempt to embarrass Modi, who has carefully nurtured an image in recent years as a modernizing reformist who can rescue India’s ailing economy.
On Thursday, the U.S. business lobby questioned Modi’s reformist credentials and called on Obama to press for a removal barriers to fair trade when the two leaders meet in Washington on Monday and Tuesday.
Analysts say Washington considers Modi’s visit an important opportunity to deepen a relationship with a country its sees as a key counterbalance in Asia to an increasingly assertive China.
Before leaving Delhi on Thursday, Modi spoke of “shared values, convergent interests and complementary strengths” between India and the United States.
However, the relationship has shown itself vulnerable to unexpected hiccups.
Last year, it sank to its lowest ebb in decades over the treatment of a junior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested and strip-searched in New York after being accused of visa fraud and underpaying a domestic worker.
Indian and U.S. government officials, as well as political analysts, said they did not expect Modi’s visit to be shaken off course by the lawsuit.
“This is certainly an attempt by one activist group to embarrass Mr. Modi,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “I do believe, however, that neither government will let this derail their official interactions.”
The president of the American Justice Center, Joseph Whittington, acknowledged that the lawsuit - which seeks compensatory and punitive damages for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings - did not have a good chance but said there was victory in “symbolism.”
In June, a U.S. judge dismissed a similar suit filed last year against Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress Party, which claimed she helped organize anti-Sikh riots in 1984.
Whittington, a city council member in Harvey, Illinois, said some of his constituents were refugees from the violence in Gujarat, who now form part of the fast-growing Indian Diaspora in the United States.
Modi is expected to be warmly welcomed by much of this community. A weekend event at New York’s Madison Square Garden is expected to draw the largest crowd ever by a foreign leader on U.S. soil.
However, some protests are expected. A group called the Alliance for Justice and Accountability is calling for people to picket the venue and wave black flags in protest. Another group, the Sikhs for Justice that filed the Gandhi suit, will convene a ‘Citizen’s Court’ where they will indict Modi at a park in front of the White House when he meets Obama.
The lawyer representing the American Justice Center, a non-profit organization formed to sue on behalf of India’s religious minorities said it was offering a $10,000 reward to anyone would serve court papers on Modi. Modi or his lawyer would have 21 days to respond.
(This story has been refiled to add dropped word in paragraph 8)
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond in New York; Writing by Tomasz Janowski and David Brunnstrom, editing by Ross Colvin