WASHINGTON: Apprehensions in New Delhi that human rights and civil liberties issues will come to the fore in a Biden administration was vindicated this week when a senior US administration official expressed concern about recent actions of the Modi government that he said do not conform to the country's democratic values.
“India remains the world's largest democracy with a strong rule of law and independent judiciary and enjoys a strong and growing strategic partnership with the United States. However, some of the Indian government's actions have raised concerns that are inconsistent with India's democratic values,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Dean Thompson told a Congressional panel hearing testimony on democracy in the Indo-Pacific region.
“This includes increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and the detention of human rights activists and journalists,” Thompson told the sub-committee, adding the US regularly engages in and on these issues, including the important work of civil society.
Increased detention and prosecution of journalists and civil liberties activists in India is drawing attention of their counterparts in US who have found voice in the Biden administration after such issues were sidelined during the Trump era. Administration officials and lawmakers too have raised the issue tactfully and in context.
Although the panel heard testimony on poor human rights record in the region, including in China and Pakistan, India is held to a higher standard given its democratic credentials. Thompson told lawmakers the US has been concerned with civil liberties in countries of region, including restrictions on journalists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the same thing was now happening in India too, despite the country's very vibrant press that reports very freely on its government.
Lawmakers also raised concern about the situation in Kashmir citing constituent inquiries. “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, including we've seen some steps taken: The release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we'd like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so,” Thompson told the panel.
The broader sentiment at the hearing though remained in favor of a strong US-India partnership particularly in the light of China's belligerence, a view Thompson concurred with.
“We are, right now, through our global comprehensive strategic partnership with India looking at areas where we can work together to strengthen across the region the effects of the ability of countries to push back on malign influence and through the Quad initiative where we brought in Japan and Australia, as well,” Thompson told the panel.