India: A Litmus Test for U.S. Foreign Policy

November 12, 2021 Updated September 18, 2022 Articles

By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Policy Analyst, and Amine Ben Naceur, MPAC Non-Resident Senior Policy Fellow

Image via Deccan Herald

Last week, we wrote about the rise of religious intolerance in India and its troubling implications for South Asia and America. In today’s piece, we dive deeper into potential policy solutions. Read the first part here.

In 2014, the radical Hindu-nationalist, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power as Prime Minister. Since his ascension to the throne, what was once referred to as the world’s largest democracy has now been degraded to a “partially free democracy”, with some even going so far as to calling India an “electoral autocracy”.

Modi has been in feverish pursuit of transforming India — an ethnically and religious diverse nation of over a billion people — into his vision of a religiously and ideologically homogeneous country.

India is swiftly sliding into the realm of authoritarianism, as clearly evidenced by its increasing censorship of media, suppression of free speech, and abuse of civil rights and liberties. Communal tensions between its Hindu and Muslim populations have been weaponized by the ruling party as a part of this greater political strategy to strengthen its reign over the country.

As the recent communal violence in neighboring Bangladesh shows, the current politics of India is now bleeding across its borders and carries the potential to destabilize the Subcontinent. If unchecked by the United States, the Hindu-nationalist policies of the Modi government will not only affect the lives of millions of South Asians in America, but it will also bring into question the authenticity and efficacy of President Joe Biden’s promise to “meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism” through our foreign policy.

Freedom of speech and expression is a hallmark of any democracy, but that is a fast-disappearing right in India today. Journalists who expose abuses committed by the pro-Hindu far right have become easy targets for censorship and, worse, persecution. This summer, for example, Indian authorities launched an investigation into three Muslim journalists and three Muslim members of the opposition Congress party who shared a video of a group of men attacking an elderly Muslim man in the state of Uttar Pradesh. One of the journalists named in the police investigation is the award-winning journalist and contributor to TIME and the Washington Post, Rana Ayyub, whom MPAC honored with its Voices of Courage and Conscience Award in 2020.

India has approximately 172 million Muslims, comprising 14.2 percent of the country’s total population, according to the 2011 census. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050, India is expected to have the largest Muslim population in the world. Despite the growing number of Muslims in the country, however, their political and cultural presence has been challenged, especially over the past decade, by an offensive Hindu nationalist movement.

While violence is the most dramatic expression of Muslim exclusion in India, other forms of exclusionary policies have had a far more pronounced impact on the daily life Indian Muslims. Indeed, prior to the recent surge of violence, they were victims of a generalized policy of marginalization that consisted of depriving them of their means of subsistence by limiting certain economic activities that are mostly practiced by this minority or by reducing their representation in political bodies such as the Parliament.

We must not lose sight of America’s enduring values in the name of temporary strategic interests. It is imperative that we, the United States, must insist on our own values of justice, freedom, and equality by acting consistently in the face of the disastrous human rights crisis unfolding in India.

Given the large number of American Indians who contribute to the economic, cultural and intellectual life of our nation, it would be counterproductive to adopt measures that would demonize India and thus harm the South Asian American population.

There is no easy diplomatic solution to this issue, but we have identified a few starting points. First, we call for the confirmation of Rashad Hussain as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Mr. Hussain has a demonstrable track record of promoting and advancing religious freedom with integrity. His appointment will allow the United States to affirm in multilateral forums and with its partners its commitment to the fundamental freedoms of thought and belief that are so dear to our democracy and that constitute the DNA of our political institutions.

We also call on our lawmakers to respect the 2017 law, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which stipulates that any country that engages with Russia’s defense and intelligence fields could face U.S. sanctions. Through its recent $5.5 billion arms deal with Russia, India is in direct violation of CAATSA and as such must be held accountable for violating the terms of our allyship. Though some have urged President Biden to waive sanctions for India, doing so would diminish the credibility of CAATSA and further embolden India’s transgressive behavior.

Finally, following President Biden’s promise to counter the growth of authoritarianism through our foreign policy, we urge our President and the State Department to promote the values of free speech, freedom of religion, equality, and justice in India. Doing otherwise will only further diminish our already-tarnished standing in the global community.

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