Will religious freedom spat damage US-India ties?

Will religious freedom spat damage US-India ties?

Mike Pompeo, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence in New Delhi, India. (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to India came at a fragile moment in US-India relations. While the partnership is experiencing robust growth on the defense side — part of a longstanding trend dating back more than a decade — the relationship is suffering through a series of tensions.
Several bones of contention are geopolitical, such as New Delhi’s desire to keep doing business with Iran and Russia despite US sanctions on both American rivals. However, US-India tensions are largely rooted in economic and trade disputes, from new tariffs to US unhappiness about Indian data localization policies.
Yet a new source of tension, separate from geopolitics or trade and economic considerations, has now entered the fray. In recent days, Washington has called out India for its record on religious freedom issues — a move guaranteed to irritate New Delhi. Indeed, in an official response, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that the Indian Constitution “guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including its minority communities. It is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy where the Constitution provides protection of religious freedom... We see no locus standi for a foreign entity or government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”
Washington was actually right to call out India for its record on religious freedom — though its decision to do so is quite surprising.
Earlier this month, in congressional testimony, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells said: “In our engagements with India, we will continue to highlight the importance of preserving a diverse and inclusive society... 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.” Then, last Friday, the State Department released its latest annual report on international religious freedom. It featured a lengthy account of religious freedom violations in India.
So why was Washington right to lodge this criticism? Despite the current tensions in US-India ties, the overall relationship — thanks in great part to a robust security partnership — remains strong and suffused with goodwill and trust. Friends should be candid with each other, and they should not hesitate to offer opinions that may not sit well with the other. And, at the end of the day, this criticism is not going to harm the relationship. It will be forgotten soon enough.

Washington was actually right to call out India for its record on religious freedom — though its decision to do so is quite surprising.

Michael Kugelman

Remarks by Barack Obama present a useful precedent. Back in 2015, the then-US president caught many Indians off guard when he made a speech in New Delhi that gently pressed India to ensure religious freedom. Some Indian officials may have been displeased, but the impact on the relationship was minimal at best.
Additionally, both Wells’ remarks and the State Department’s International Religious Freedom report were merely highlighting the situation on the ground in India: One in which communal tensions and attacks on Indian religious minorities have been starkly apparent over the last year (the 2017 report gave ample attention to India as well). Soon after Washington released its latest report, a video emerged of a young Indian Muslim man getting beaten by a mob and being forced to chant prayers to Hindu gods. He died in hospital several days later.
Having said all this, Washington’s decision to shine the religious freedom spotlight on India is surprising.
First, given the Trump administration’s own domestic policies, and particularly those — such as its travel ban — that have disproportionately targeted Muslims and Muslim states, its decision to highlight anti-Muslim discrimination in India is striking, and seemingly out of step with its actions at home.
Second, the Trump administration’s public messaging on India has largely been positive. Notwithstanding some of Trump’s complaints about India — from the high tariffs New Delhi imposes on American motorcycle exports to India’s insufficient contributions to the war in Afghanistan — the administration, clearly in an effort to set a positive tone for a key partnership, has largely refrained from criticism.
Third, Washington often cites shared values (including democracy) as part of the glue that binds the two countries together (even though in reality it is convergent interests, such as shared concerns about China, that most drive the partnership). Highlighting religious freedom violations undercuts this narrative by singling out flaws in Indian democracy.
Ultimately, we should not be surprised that the Trump administration has made this move. The current administration is one of the most unpredictable that has occupied the White House in recent years, if ever.
The good news for Washington and New Delhi is that this surprising move, unlike some of the other bold actions taken by the White House, is not likely to have troubling consequences. Its impact on bilateral ties will be much smaller than the trade and economic tensions currently afflicting a relationship that remains robust, but also increasingly fragile.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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