The Biden administration is enabling India’s human rights abuses

By failing to hold Modi to account, Biden is perpetuating deepening religious persecution against Indian minorities.

US President Joe Biden meets with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on September 24, 2021 [File: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein]

On November 17, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken named 10 countries on the US government’s official list of the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom. A notable omission was India.

The announcement comes in response to recommendations from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bi-partisan and autonomous federal panel. For two years in a row, the USCIRF has recommended that India be listed as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) along with 13 others.

Last year, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to include India on that list. This year, Blinken also did not accept USCIRF’s recommendation on India.

It is no secret that the US considers India a critical ally. The US Department of State’s website says that “The United States and India have shared interests in promoting global security, stability, and economic prosperity through trade, investment, and connectivity.” It adds that India is America’s “major defence partner” and the two nations have “deepened cooperation on maritime security, interoperability, and information sharing”.

Yet, being a critical ally has not kept Saudi Arabia off the CPC list for years. The Department of State says the kingdom has a “longstanding security relationship” with the US and is its “largest foreign military sales (FMS) customer, with more than $100 billion in active FMS cases”. So why can’t India be designated as CPC and targeted sanctioned imposed on its agencies and officials, as USCIRF has recommended, for its considerable human and religious rights abuses?

Blinken’s refusal to designate India as CPC contradicts and is inconsistent with his own position on India. Just seven months ago, he released the US Department of State’s global religious freedom report that indicted India for severe religious persecution. It contained damning reports from the ground implicating members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and his affiliates from the 96-year-old Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the persecution of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.

In fact, year after year, the Department of State’s candid reporting on India has held no punches. In March, Blinken released a global human rights report recording “significant human rights issues” in India, including extrajudicial killings by the police, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, violence against minorities, unjustified arrests or prosecution of journalists, and censorship and blocking of websites.

Yet, just weeks after taking office, President Joe Biden chose Modi as one of the world’s first leaders to meet. It is ironic that barely days prior to that Biden-Modi virtual meeting, research organisation Freedom House released a report in which it documented India’s democracy decline from “free” to “partly free”.

A week later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin flew to New Delhi on his first foreign visit to discuss “shared goals” with Modi but failed to mention India’s human rights abuses. In July, Blinken visited India to claim that “the US and India share a commitment to democratic values; this is part of the bedrock of our relationship and reflective of India’s pluralistic society and history of harmony.” Again, no mention of India’s appalling human rights.

In September, the then US Charge d’Affaires Atul Keshap, an Indian American, met RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who holds no government position, but heads India’s superstructure of religious persecution and calls for turning India into a Hindu nation. They discussed “India’s tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusivity and pluralism”.

In October, weeks after the Taliban unexpectedly seized Afghanistan, Blinken’s second-in-command, Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, landed in New Delhi and promptly saluted India and the US as “thriving” democracies.

Department of State officials claim that the US “privately” raises human rights issues with India. They point to Biden’s invocation of Mahatma Gandhi’s “message of nonviolence, respect, tolerance” at his meeting with Modi at the White House in September, and Vice President Kamala Harris telling Modi the US and India should “protect democracies”.

But Biden, Harris, Austin, Blinken, Sherman and Keshap have failed to hold any substantive dialogue on India’s assault on democracy in their meetings with Modi, his foreign and defence ministers, national security adviser, top diplomats, and Bhagwat.

Modi is expected to join the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” on December 9-10, where he will no doubt falsify his record of persecuting religious minorities, human rights defenders, critics, lawyers, journalists, students and politicians.

The Department of State’s own reports show that India’s democratic decline is contrary to the Summit’s agenda of “defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and advancing respect for human rights”.

This summit’s emphasis on human rights can offer the opportunity to state in clear, public, and no uncertain terms the Biden administration’s objections to the unacceptable persecution taking place in India so that the Indian government gets the point. We expect the president to be more forceful and less opaque in his criticism given the stated purpose of the conference.

America’s refusal to clearly say that India’s escalating repression contradicts its long-held commitment to the ideals of rights, freedoms and liberties must not continue. Our own credibility as a democracy is undermined if we aid and abet the world’s largest democracy in becoming the world’s second and most autocratic society after China, which, of course, Blinken has re-designated as CPC.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.