Blinken to discuss religious freedom, use of Pegasus with Indian authorities

Published July 26, 2021
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is reaching New Delhi on July 28. — Reuters/File
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is reaching New Delhi on July 28. — Reuters/File

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will raise the issues of religious freedom, human rights and the use of a spyware for monitoring opponents and foreign leaders when he arrives in New Delhi on Wednesday for talks with the Modi government.

“With respect to the human rights and democracy question, yes, you’re right; I will tell you that we will raise it, and we will continue that conversation, because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t,” said Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson while briefing journalists on the visit.

“And we believe India is going to be a really important part of continuing those conversations and building strong efforts on those fronts in partnership as we go forward,” he added.

The US official was replying to a journalist, who asked him if Secretary Blinken would raise the issues related to human rights and religious freedom in India. The journalist also reminded Thompson that the Modi government had gotten a free pass from the US on its anti-Muslim legislation and other similar actions taken by it.

During his July 26-29 visit to South Asia and the Middle East, Secretary Blinken will discuss various options for pursuing a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan with regional leaders. He is reaching New Delhi on July 28 for meetings with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for talks that would also include India-Pakistan relations.

Also read: US wants Pakistan, India to work for more stable ties

In response to another question on the use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for snooping on telephone conversations, Thompson said: “Obviously, the whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning.”

On Friday, Pakistan called on the United Nations to investigate whether India used Pegasus to spy on public figures including Prime Minister Imran Khan. The premier's phone number was on a list of what an investigation by a group of 17 international media organisations and Amnesty International said were potential surveillance targets for countries that bought the spyware. The spyware is only sold to governments.

“I know this is a broader issue, but I will say that we’ve been, I think, quite vocal about trying to find ways for companies to be able to ensure that their technology is not used in these types of ways,” said Thompson when a journalist asked him to comment on media reports that New Delhi was using Pegasus for spying on targets both inside and outside India. “And we will certainly continue to press those issues,” the US official added.

Last week, US lawmakers also expressed concerns over the state of freedom of expression and religion in India.

“I remain seriously concerned about the Indian government’s commitment to protecting the rights of minorities, including the 200 million Muslims in India,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat.

“In the last seven years, hundreds of Muslims just walking down the street have been attacked by vigilante mobs, they have been lynched. It is a travesty of justice, and I am horrified by it,” said Congresswoman Marie Newman, another Democrat.

They expressed these opinions in a panel discussion on “Religious Freedom in India: Challenges & Opportunities”, organised by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), a Washington, DC-based non-profit that advocates for human rights, religious freedom and civil liberties in the US and India.

“Targeting of social and political activities, crackdown on free speech and religiously motivated discrimination against minorities … undermine India’s longstanding oath to democratic values,” Senator Markey said. “I will continue to stand up for these principles in the United States Senate, and I will encourage India to do the same.”

Acknowledging India’s democratic credentials, Markey said the United States had the “right to speak up and speak out when a fellow democracy and strategic partner fails to protect the rights of all their people”.

Congresswoman Newman said the religious discrimination practice in India was “a travesty of justice, and I am horrified by it. Acts of violence are not only targeting religious minorities, but social and political activists, lawyers, journalists and students.”

The US Department of State in its 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom released by Secretary Blinken “speaks at length about the persecution of India’s Muslims and Christians”, Newman said.

“There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs,” she said, citing the report.

She noted that a US advocacy group, Freedom House, had downgraded its rating for India’s democracy from being free to partly free.

Congressman Andy Levin, vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and nonproliferation, said, “The India of Narendra Modi today is not the India I fell in love with” when he first visited it in 1978, fresh out of high school.

Levin also referred to the religious freedom report describing attacks on religious freedom in India that occurred throughout 2020.

He noted that the report included a wide range of subjects, from disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic that targeted religious minorities to attempts to ban interfaith marriages and riots in Delhi where more than 50 people died and 200 were injured, most of them Muslims.

“All of these examples are deeply upsetting, but perhaps what is most alarming about this report to me is the fact that these attacks are not new,” Levin said. “They are part of a pattern we have seen becoming increasingly clear and prevalent under Prime Minister Modi.”

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