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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Why Biden should be careful about courting India's Modi government

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Opinion by Knox Thames and Simran Jeet Singh

(CNN) The United States is putting on a full-court press to deepen ties with India. President Joe Biden included India in the first-ever heads of state meeting of "The Quad," an exclusive group that also includes Japan and Australia, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Delhi as part of his first trip abroad. All in an effort to find friends in Asia to counter expansionist China.

But while Beijing crushes dissent at home and flexes its muscle abroad, is India the right US partner to ensure stability, prosperity, and freedom in the region? Democratic India appears as a logical and natural ally. However, the regressive actions of Narendra Modi's government put the answer in doubt.

India's atmosphere has darkened since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014. Freedom House recently downgraded the country to "partially free,"citing a "multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent."

Many human rights criticisms of China echo in India. While Delhi is not despotic like Beijing, the negative rights trend in India is alarming and could make any partnership with Washington untenable. Indian government policies have singled out Indian Muslims, potentially forcing millions into statelessness. The continued enforcement of cow slaughter laws penalizes Muslims, as well as Christians and Dalits, for offending certain Hindu religious interpretations.

Authorities regularly turn a blind eye to deadly assaults on Muslims, even in Delhi. And in something hard to believe in the 21st century, multiple Indian states now must approve religious conversions and interfaith marriages. While not as severe as actions taken in Hong Kong, India's robust and active civil society is also under pressure. The government uses the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) as a weapon to strangle disfavored NGOs and non-profit groups.

Compassion International was shut down in 2017 over baseless allegations of forcibly converting children to Christianity. While scoring points for Modi's Hindutva base, it hurt the desperately poor who received aid from the organization. The FCRA was also used against Amnesty International, halting its inconvenient reporting of human rights abuses.

And now the strong-arm response to farmer protests follows this trend. Certainly because of these challenges, the joint statement from the Quad did not refer to human rights, something almost boilerplate in US pronouncements.

Due to India's size and location, both the Obama and Trump administrations courted India, wanting markets opened and security partnerships strengthened. But the rights environment has worsened over time, with only muted US criticism. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to name India as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for religious freedom violations, despite calls by advocates. However, he and then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper did sign agreements in October to deepen military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the US and India.

The Biden administration appears to be charting a middle course. The State Department only issued a mild critique in February on the farmer protests crackdown, but Secretary Austin raised concerns about human rights violations against minorities, something notable from a Secretary of Defense. Incorporating human rights across the bilateral relationship is smart, and President Biden would be wise to avoid an "all carrots" courtship of India. It is not in America's interest to become close partners with countries moving away from shared values.

Some will retort the US has few regional options, and that we must draw closer to Modi despite his warts. Yet it's hypocritical to criticize Chinese persecution of minorities while ignoring the persecution of minorities in India. The United States is not perfect, but we grapple with our shortcomings unlike few other countries. American interests at home and abroad are best served when we stand by our principles and stand with the persecuted.

Working with India need not be zero-sum. The Biden administration can continue to encourage Delhi's constructive engagement by interlocking human rights with enhanced economic and security partnerships. It can be done. For instance, former President George W. Bush's administration designated Vietnam a "country of particular concern" in 2004 for religious freedom violations, and relations deepened while Hanoi implemented reforms. Former President Barack Obama raising concerns about minority rights during his 2015 trip to India did not hamper relations but improved the environment for minorities.

We must remember it is also in India's interests to ensure the US supports them against Chinese threats. Leverage does not rest with Delhi alone. The US can recalibrate if India fails to change course. Measured steps could, for example, be sharper criticism if the Modi government responds violently to the farmer protests. If repression increases towards religious minorities, the administration can place India on the Special Watch List for religious freedom violations. Such warning lights would signal a problem but wouldn't immediately hinder the broader relationship. Ensuring US partners respect human rights will buttress and strengthen efforts to counter China. Beijing plays a long game, whittling away at standards to remold the region (if not the world) in its image. Encouraging and robustly supporting rights-respecting nations around the Indo-Pacific region will frustrate these ambitions while demonstrating America's support of billions of people. Pressing for human rights makes strategic sense and reflects American values.

Critical to this is India. Losing India, watching it slide away from shared values would negatively impact hundreds of millions of people on the sub-continent, while bending the overall rights environment in Asia more towards Beijing. The stakes are high. Engaging India on a rights agenda will be one of President Biden's most significant challenges. It must be a high priority in our Asia relationships.

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