Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under fire over award to Indian PM Modi

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi commands a vast following in the country but has faced intense criticism over allegations of human rights violations.

(CNN)International human rights activists have slammed a decision by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to hand India's controversial Prime Minister an award in recognition of his work to improve sanitation in the country.

The Global Gatekeeper award, due to be given to Narendra Modi later this month, celebrates the country's Clean India program -- which has seen millions of toilets built as part of a drive to raise awareness of hygiene.
But a group of prominent South Asian Americans, who say they are "allies in philanthropy," have written an open letter criticizing the award and urging the Foundation to withdraw it, citing concerns over his human rights record.
    The signatories -- among them lawyers, civil society representatives, and activists -- said the award would "signal the international community's willingness to overlook, and remain silent, in the face of the Indian government's brazen violations of human rights principles."
    Across India and beyond there have been widespread concerns about an increase in violent Hindu nationalism and vigilantism against minority Muslims since Modi came to power in 2014.
    Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was sworn in for a second term in May following a landslide victory, has faced intense criticism over allegations of human rights violations.
    In August, Modi's governments stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its partial autonomy and downgraded its federal status, imposing strict restrictions on movement and suspending all communications, in a dramatic crackdown that essentially shut the disputed region off from the outside world. Limited communications have been restored since in some districts in the region.
    In late August, nearly 2 million people in the northeastern state of Assam were left off a vast register of Indian citizens. In a bid to root out unauthorized migrants, all residents of Assam had been required to prove with documentary evidence that they or their relatives were living in the state before March 24, 1971 -- the day preceding the Bangladesh Liberation War -- to be considered eligible for Indian citizenship.
    Writing in the letter, the activists continued: "For over a month now, PM Modi has placed 8 million people in Jammu and Kashmir under house arrest, blocked communications and media coverage to the outside world, detained thousands of people including children, and denied basic benefits."
    "In addition, the Indian government has begun to disenfranchise millions of residents, mainly Muslims, in the state of Assam," the letter said.
    Bill and Melinda Gates have defended their decision to hand  Narendra Modi an award.
    "These gross human rights violations must not be diminished, denied, or compartmentalized."
    The veracity of the letter, published on Medium, was confirmed to CNN by signatories. CNN has also reached out to the letter's organizer for comment.
    The Modi government has denied claims of human rights abuses in Kashmir, a region that's the subject of a long-running and bloody territorial dispute with Pakistan.
    Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval told journalists last week that the move to repeal special status for Kashmir removed "a special discrimination. With its abrogation, we have brought Kashmiris on a par with Indians," he said, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.