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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

America Shouldn't Ignore Rights Abuses in India

In Washington policy circles, conventional wisdom has it that democratic India is a logical, natural, and indispensable strategic partner to counter China. But few policymakers or think tank analysts seem willing to acknowledge how far human rights have fallen under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership—or recognize the implications this decline has for U.S. foreign policy. When Prime Minister Modi visits Washington next week, the Biden administration and members of Congress will roll out the red carpet for him despite India’s turn away from liberal democracy and toward Hindu nationalism.

President Biden will fete Modi with a state dinner, while Modi will address a joint session of Congress. The White House says the visit will “affirm the deep and close partnership” between India and America and strengthen the “shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific.” The four party leaders of Congress justified Modi’s invitation “based on our shared values and commitment to global peace and prosperity.”

But the India that policymakers, legislators, and strategists seek to court increasingly exists only in their imaginations. The litany of human rights violations documented by U.S. government reports on human rights and religious freedom, reports to Congress, and reports by watch dogs and advocacy groups like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch all provide stark detail on India’s slide into illiberalism under Prime Minister Modi. Pretending that everything in India is fine, as it was a mere decade ago, does a disservice to U.S. foreign policy as well as America’s long term security interests in Asia.

Many in Washington will want to overlook India’s increasing human rights and democracy problems to facilitate bonhomie during the visit. Perhaps concerns will be raised privately, but as with all diplomacy consequences matter. Elsewhere, moreover, the State Department recently issued public rebukes of two key partners over threats to free and fair elections—one of the Biden administration’s stated foreign policy priorities.

At the end of May, for instance, Secretary Blinken announced that the United States would “restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” The ban would affect current and former government officials as well as politicians. Five days later, the State Department publicly condemned legislation passed by Poland’s ruling party “that could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections.”

These moves were surprising—and surprisingly strong. Consequences give strength to statements and show revolve. Without them, savvy politicians will ignore idle threats and continue ahead. India proves the point: with multiple administrations seeking to court New Delhi, Modi has had little reason to reconsider his intolerant politics and negative human rights policies.

Some national security strategists and many Modi apologists will say that India is just too important to risk offending. But outspoken American criticism of Poland ought to put that argument to rest by showing that it is in fact possible to hold a friendly and strategically important government to account for breaches of fundamental liberal and democratic principles. Both India and Poland are frontline countries, and both fear the expansionist aims of their giant neighbors. Both remain democracies, but both have steadily moved in an illiberal direction over the past decade. Both have worked to pull themselves up from occupation or colonization. The heritage of many Americans hails from both nations—yet we remain silent towards only one.

Overlooking dangerous trends in India has become something of a bipartisan tradition. When riots targeting Muslims in Delhi during President Trump’s February 2020 visit, he ignored them. His administration later decided against blacklisting India for religious freedom abuses against Christians. To his credit, Secretary of State Blinken did publicly express concern about human rights in India last year—but this April, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo lavished praise on Modi’s “unbelievable, visionary” leadership. All in all, public criticism of Modi’s government by the Biden administration has been rare or given on background by unnamed officials.

Willful ignorance about the parlous state of human rights and democracy in India is not smart policy and damages American credibility. A strong, democratic, rights-respecting India that joined with other Asian democracies in a united front against an expansionist, autocratic China would indeed be powerful. But that vision recedes with every passing day, and recent violence against religious and ethnic minorities continues the trend. More talk of shared democratic values against authoritarian China will ring increasingly hollow if religious minorities in India fare no better than religious minorities in China.

First and foremost, policymakers must remember that the United States still has leverage that could change Modi’s behavior. India needs the United States’ help against Beijing as much as vice versa—after all, China sits on India’s border and has deployed thousands of troops in contested areas. Beijing aims to encircle India by building an alliance with India’s arch-enemy and next-door neighbor Pakistan, all while backing Burma’s military, wooing Nepal and Bangladesh, and seeking to dominate the waters of the Indian Ocean. America doesn’t need to beg New Delhi to be our partner, as the U.S. has stronger and solidly liberal allies in the wider Indo-Pacific region like Japan, Korea, and Australia.

Ideally, Modi’s meetings with administration and congressional officials present an opportunity to privately and publicly discuss problems unfolding across the massive democracy. During his trip to India in January 2015, for example, President Obama raised concerns about India’s religious minorities. Indian Christian and Muslim leaders later told me this improved the domestic climate and paused the negative slide. Importantly, this defense of our values did not scuttle bilateral relations—and in fact they continued to grow. Working with India need not be zero-sum.

The Biden administration and Congress should press for change. They can encourage constructive engagement with Delhi by interlocking human rights with enhanced economic and security partnerships. Friends shouldn’t let friends commit human rights abuses. Our leaders can and should speak publicly about concerns, emphasize the benefits of pluralism and minority rights, and push Indian leaders to adopt better policies. An India that adheres to liberal and democratic values remains the best foundation for a durable partnership.

Without a willingness to press Modi for reform on this front, U.S. policy risks the entire country falling into illiberalism. The consequences for hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t fit Modi’s ideological mold would be catastrophic—all while tilting the overall political and human rights environment in Asia towards Beijing. American silence on human rights and values may well bring about the scenario we hope to avoid.

Insistence on respect for human rights should be a sine qua non of America’s partnership with India, a stance that reflects our values as well as our security interests. If Modi persists on his present course, that’s his decision—but the United States shouldn’t sacrifice its ideals and pretend he’s doing otherwise in exchange for the chimera of partnership. Modi’s June visit offers the Biden administration and Congress an opportunity to set a better course—and they should seize it.

Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University.

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