India’s rights record, America’s blinkered vision

Washington’s diplomatic embrace is providing New Delhi a certain immunity from international criticism

Published - January 04, 2022 12:02 am IST

US President Joe Biden attends a virtual meeting with members of the "Quad" alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 12, 2021. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP)

US President Joe Biden attends a virtual meeting with members of the "Quad" alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 12, 2021. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP)

Recent Indian foreign policy has a chequered record, the vacillations over the Taliban resuming control in Afghanistan being one instance. But it cannot be denied that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been remarkably successful in maintaining cordial Indian relations with Washington under United States President Joe Biden despite overt wooing of former President Donald Trump.

Accommodating view

India is considered a critical ally by the United States, the only designated Major Defence Partner, and Ambassador-Designate to India Eric Garcetti told the Senate, “Few nations are more vital to the future of American security and prosperity than India,.”

In Delhi last October, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said of India’s purchase of Russian military equipment, “We’ve been quite public about any country that decides to use the S-400. We think that it is dangerous and not in anybody’s security interest,” but our authorities did not think it necessary to rebuke her for flagrant discourtesy on Indian soil.

For what American Defence Minister Lloyd James Austin III called “shared values”, Washington takes an accommodating view of widespread Indian downgrades in indices considered credible in assessing democratic norms and human rights. Like Israel, India finds that Washington’s embrace provides a certain immunity from international criticism.

The U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices itself last March recorded “significant human rights issues” in India, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, violence against minorities, unjustified harassment of journalists, and censorship and blocking of websites. India is rated poorly by the U.S.-based Freedom House which called it ‘partly free’, Sweden’s V-Dem Institute which dubbed it an ‘electoral autocracy’, The Economist ’s Democracy Index and the Stockholm Institute for Democracy which India had helped to establish.

A year ago, India ranked 142 in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has for successive years recommended that India be listed as a ‘country of particular concern’ due to its treatment of Muslims and Christians, and India is ranked in the Open Doors World Watch List for ‘extreme’ Christian persecution below Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government has ignored all these findings to the dismay of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists due to Narendra Modi’s positioning India as an indispensable partner, and his government has no sympathy for NGOs, portraying their conclusions as biased and uninformed.

The world media

Diplomacy does not proceed according to ethical standards; nor does the global media. Six dying in a gust of wind in Australia and six in an Illinois warehouse collapse make headlines, while reports that every 25 minutes an Indian woman commits suicide, 48 persons dying in a volcanic eruption in Java and 208 in a typhoon in Philippines are not newsworthy. Nor is the current heroic popular demand in Sudan for a democratic government.

In past times, third world leaders in countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria tried to create a rival media platform, and Qatar, China and Russia started 24-hour news channels but cannot match the resources and reach of the entrenched, West-dominated English-medium news ecosystem which includes soft power assets such as music, film and culture. Hence, the Central Intelligence Agency is portrayed as all-knowing, despite its abject failures in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Iraq’s nuclear weapons and the Afghan army’s capabilities.

World news is curated by a handful of western capitals, the ‘read outs’ being for the domestic audience, which can enjoy the U.S. and its allies forever fulminating against opponents who meekly submit to the diatribes. Threats of “massive consequences and severe economic cost” against Russia by G7 countries and the European Union are blandly announced without reference to what might be Russia’s concerns for its own security. A boycott of the Winter Olympics in China by irrelevant western officials is heralded, but no boycott is threatened of the Football World Cup at Qatar, an absolute monarchy where there are scant civil and political rights, workers rights are negligible and homosexuality is deemed illegal.

The West’s instrument of choice for penalising political adversaries is this: unilateral sanctions of dubious legality in international law. No audit has ever been taken of the immense suffering these sanctions inflict on innocent civilians.

The U.S. Treasury lists 36 groups of multiple sanctions, the latest of which is a typically insensitive measure against seven Bangladeshis, including the police chief, just before the 50th anniversary of that nation’s liberation from American ally Pakistan.

On the U.S.

For the world’s oldest democracy to arbitrate on fundamental rights of others is ironic for a country where in 12 months ending March 2021, its police murdered 37 African-American people per million against 15 per million whites, when African-Americans comprise only 13% of the population. The Summit For Democracy hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden was predictably confused about its participants because not every democracy is liberal and not every society considered liberal is fully democratic. Meaningful summits should be global in attendance and concentrate on pressing problems such as inequality, climate change and arms control on earth and in space.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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