Great challenges for all democracies: Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State discusses inter-religious relations, media freedom at ‘civil society round-table’

Updated - July 29, 2021 01:37 am IST

Published - July 28, 2021 01:08 pm IST - New Delhi

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said he was "pleased to meet civil society leaders". Photo: Twitter/@SecBlinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said he was "pleased to meet civil society leaders". Photo: Twitter/@SecBlinken

Inter-religious relations, media freedoms, farmers’ protests, love ‘jihad’ violence and minority rights were part of the discussion which visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had with a group of people that included a representative of the Dalai Lama here on Wednesday. The “civil society round-table” discussion that is expected to raise some concerns from the Government of India and a possible protest from China, was Mr. Blinken’s first engagement during his day-long visit to India.

Sources said Tibet was not directly raised during the meeting, but the lack of progress in China’s dialogue on the issue was discussed at the round-table talks, which included Geshe Dorji Damdul, the Delhi-based Director of Tibet House.

Mr. Blinken also met Director of the Bureau of the Dalai Lama in Delhi Ngodup Dongchung separately on Wednesday morning. While representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Authority or “government in exile” have met with U.S. diplomats in the past, the presence of Mr. Damdul in the meeting with Indian civil society with the U.S. Secretary of State in Delhi is a first.

‘Great challenges’

In his opening remarks, Mr. Blinken spoke of the “great challenges” for all democracies in the world, particularly India, and the U.S., where Congress has been holding committee hearings on the January 6 attack on the Capitol House by pro-Trump protesters. Mr. Blinken said the India-U.S. relationship was one of the “most important” in the world whose people were “connected by shared values”.

“The Indian people and the American people believe in human dignity and equality of opportunity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and belief,” Mr. Blinken said in remarks released to the media.

“We believe that all people deserve to have a voice in their government and be treated with respect no matter who they are,” he added. The Union government’s response to recent protests and dissent were a part of the discussion that followed.

A photograph of the meeting tweeted shortly after showed constitutional lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, Inter-Faith foundation founder Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed and representatives of the Ramakrishna Mission, as well as Baha’i, Sikh and Christian NGOs present at the meeting with Mr. Blinken and U.S. Charge d’Affaires Atul Keshap.

Hears perspectives on issues

During the 45-minute discussion, Mr. Blinken received perspectives from the various representatives on the status of religious freedom, including the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and anti-conversion (derogatorily referred to as love ‘jihad’) laws passed by some States, which have drawn international criticism. Other current issues, including the arrest of journalists and the recent revelations of a list of journalists and activists believed to be under surveillance using Israeli Pegasus software, were also discussed. In addition, the problems of farmers protesting at Delhi’s borders over the agriculture reform laws passed last year were part of the conversation, sources told The Hindu .

“We had a very useful discussion on everything that is happening in the country. India is passing through an ideologically transitional phase, and it is time for a closer engagement between those who hold secularism and those who hold Hindutva close to their hearts, not conflict and confrontation. The minorities must also engage with the majority community on this,” said Dr. Ahmed, whose book, The meeting of minds: a bridging initiative, was released by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat earlier this month, when asked about the meeting.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the discussion.

Earlier this week, the Union government had taken exception to comments by U.S. State Department officials who told journalists last Friday that Mr. Blinken would raise human rights issues and concerns over media freedoms during his meetings in Delhi. “As a long-standing pluralistic society, India is open to engaging those who now recognise the value of diversity,” government sources had countered.

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