US urges India to contain violence on basis of religion

Updated June 15, 2019

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“In our engagements with India, we will continue to highlight importance of preserving a diverse and inclusive society.” — AFP/File
“In our engagements with India, we will continue to highlight importance of preserving a diverse and inclusive society.” — AFP/File

WASHINGTON: The top US diplomat for South Asia has urged the newly re-elected Modi government to quickly condemn religious violence in India and hold extremists accountable.

In her remarks before a House subcommittee for foreign affairs on Thursday, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells also tried to persuade India not to purchase S-400 missile defence systems from Russia.

“In our engagements with India, we will continue to highlight the importance of preserving a diverse and inclusive society,” she said in a brief prepared statement on India-US relations, which also addressed the issue of religious discrimination in that country.

Noting that India’s constitution provides strong protections for religious freedom, Ms Wells said: “We look to India’s democratically elected leaders and institutions to swiftly condemn acts of violence on the basis of religion and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Such measures “will help further India’s security and economic interests and strengthen our bilateral relationship,” she added.

While reporting her remarks, the US media noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party triumphed in the election after appealing to “India’s Hindu majority with a potent mix of nationalism, religion and welfare policies.”

The reports also noted that BJP “fielded as a candidate — and later defended — a self-styled Hindu holy woman facing charges related to a bomb blast in a Muslim neighbourhood that killed six people and injured 100.”

In February, the US-based Human Rights Watch reported a spate of attacks on Muslim citizens by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups, whose actions were sometimes defended by members of the ruling BJP.

The US State Department’s 2019 country report on human rights practices also highlighted religion and caste based violence in India. It noted that “Muslims and lower-caste Dalit groups continued to be the most vulnerable.”

The department referred to an Amnesty International report, which recorded 98 hate crimes across the country between January and June 2018. As of July 27, 24 persons were killed due to mob lynchings, a two-fold increase over 2017. Many of the acts of mob violence arose after rumours circulated over social media that a child had been kidnapped or a cow killed.

Responding to a question on India’s defence purchases, Ms Wells said the United States was not issuing a country waiver for buying S-400 missiles.

“We have serious concerns about a possible S-400 purchase, and we are continuing our conversations on how the United States or other defence providers could assist India,” she said at this special hearing on US interests in South Asia and the budget for the fiscal year 2020.

“When President Putin visited [India] in October last year, there were additional announcements of big ticket military items that were potentially under consideration,” she added.

Ms Well said that over the last 10 years, India has started to diversify its weapons sources and the US-India defence trade has increased from zero to $18 billion over the last 18 years. “But it’s still the case that about 65 to 70 percent of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin,” she added.

India first expressed an interest in purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems in 2015. The contract on delivering S-400 systems was signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi last year.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2019