WASHINGTON: The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has urged Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to raise human rights and democracy issues with Indian leaders during his visit to India.
Mr Austin, the first US defence secretary to include India on his maiden foreign trip, is scheduled to visit the country from March 19 to 21. During his three-day stay in India, he is slated to meet his counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval.
As a former head of the US Central Command, which includes both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Gen Austin is well-aware of the tensions that make South Asia such a sensitive region.
In a letter sent to the defence secretary on March 17, the committee’s chairman Senator Robert Mendez urged him to “raise democracy and human rights concerns in your discussions with the Indian government.”
The senator wrote that he too would like to see the US-India partnership grow, “but we must acknowledge that the partnership is strong when based on shared democratic values and the Indian government has been trending away from those values.”
Raising another key issue that irks both policy and lawmakers in Washington, Mr Mendez wrote: “I also expect that you will raise the administration’s opposition to India’s reportedly planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system, which threatens future US-India defence cooperation and puts India at risk of sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).”
Condemning the Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers protesting new land laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics, the letter noted that such measures “only underscore the deteriorating situation of democracy in India.”
The letter also highlighted rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship Amendments Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. It noted that the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents caused the US human rights group Freedom House to strip India of its “Free” status in its yearly global survey.
The letter reminded Gen Austin that the US national security strategy, which clearly states that “democracy is essential to meeting the challenges of our time.”
Acknowledging the need to partner with India to address China’s growing influence, the letter warned US policy makers not to “let our democratic values fall away.”
“I urge officials to make clear that respect for democratic values is necessary for strong, sustainable US-India relations,” he wrote.
Getting back to India’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, the letter acknowledged that India was not a US treaty ally and has had historical ties with the Soviet and Russian militaries.
“However, if India chooses to go forward with its purchase of S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under section 231 of CAATSA,” the letter added.
The purchase would also “limit India’s ability to work with the US on developments and procurement of sensitive military technology,” the letter explained.
The Indian media, while reporting the contents of the letter, noted that “in his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Menendez plays a key role in influencing the country’s foreign policy and national security.”
His predecessors include President Joe Biden and former secretary of state John Kerry who greatly influenced US policies towards South Asia, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan as heads of the committee.
Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2021