U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will visit India this week as part of his first official trip abroad, hoping to strengthen ties with the world’s largest democracy after initial stops in Japan and South Korea. Unlike those two long-standing democratic allies, however, India has been on a troubling authoritarian path in recent years, raising alarming questions about its potential contributions to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has overseen a gradual but clear deterioration in political rights and civil liberties since taking power in 2014, and the country has now passed an important milestone: India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free in the new Freedom in the World 2021 report issued by our organization, Freedom House.
The Indian government’s growing authoritarianism is a major test for the new U.S. administration. During his campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” He also criticized the Indian government’s crackdown on human rights in its only Muslim-majority territory, Jammu and Kashmir, and has called other discriminatory policies inconsistent with India’s tradition of secular governance and democracy. In his first call with Modi after taking office, Biden conveyed that “a shared commitment to democratic values” forms the bedrock of the bilateral relationship.
With Austin scheduled to arrive in India on Friday, the Biden administration has a pivotal opportunity to deliver its message in person. The defense secretary should make clear to his counterpart, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, that protecting human rights is central to ensuring the peace and stability that their joint efforts—and such meetings—ostensibly seek.
Specifically, Austin should underscore that the Modi government’s assault on free expression and its record of anti-Muslim discrimination are incompatible with a strong and sustainable partnership between the two countries. U.S. officials should also use their time in India to hear directly from civil society and members of persecuted groups in order to better understand the full impact of recent antidemocratic policies.
Shutting Down Free Expression and Formalizing Hindu Nationalism
The BJP has increasingly turned to the suppression of dissent as a standard operating procedure, typically smearing its opponents as “antinational.” During recent farmer-led protests against the government’s agricultural reforms, access to the internet has been repeatedly cut off in the affected areas, stripping protesters of essential tools for communication and mobilization and making it difficult for everyone in the vicinity to obtain reliable information and remain in contact with loved ones. Several journalists have been charged under the colonial-era sedition law for merely reporting on the protests.
The government has also pressured international social media platforms to cooperate with its repressive efforts. Public officials threatened to criminally charge and fine India-based employees of Twitter after the company agreed to comply only in part with government demands to shut down accounts related to the farmer protests, including those belonging to news outlets, journalists, and activists. Draconian new internet regulations proposed just weeks ago would devastate internet freedom in the country by eroding encryption and coercing social media platforms to participate in government censorship and surveillance.
Over the past year, media outlets have been goaded into praising the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dozens of journalists who failed to do so have been arrested. Authorities have also bolstered their arsenal of intrusive surveillance tools, increasing their access to spyware, facial-recognition technology, and social media monitoring systems that allow them to track entire communities and networks of perceived opponents. Prominent international human rights groups are not immune to the assault on free expression: Amnesty International shuttered its operations in India in September after authorities froze its bank accounts for alleged foreign funding violations. According to organizations including Human Rights Watch and prominent journalists like Rana Ayyub, officials reportedly sought to punish the organization for a series of reports that criticized the government.
In addition to cracking down on dissent, Modi and the BJP have taken major steps to advance their Hindu nationalist agenda, usually at the expense of Muslim populations. Just months after the BJP won reelection in 2019, the central government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semiautonomous status and proceeded to dismantle residents’ basic rights, enforcing its policies through enhanced surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and one of the world’s longest internet blackouts. A few months later, when attention was focused on the pandemic, the government changed a domicile law to make it easier for non-Kashmiris to move to the region, which could erode the local Muslim majority.
Other BJP policies have affected the rights of Muslims well beyond Kashmir. In August 2019, the eastern border state of Assam released a citizens’ register that rendered nearly two million people, mostly Muslims, stateless on the grounds that they or their ancestors were undocumented immigrants. To address the fact that many Hindus were also left off the register, Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a discriminatory law that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries. The government’s brutal response to nationwide anti-CAA protests between December 2019 and March 2020 foreshadowed the crackdown against the current farmer protests. The CAA, combined with government plans to implement a national citizens’ register, has prompted warnings that the BJP could be preparing to disenfranchise or even deport Muslims en masse.
At the end of 2020, the BJP-led government of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, approved a law that prohibits forced religious conversion through interfaith marriage; the law draws on Hindu nationalist conspiracy theories about a “love jihad,” in which Hindu women are supposedly being tricked or coerced into converting to Islam. Authorities have since disrupted marriage ceremonies and arrested a number of Muslim men for allegedly violating the law. Other states have since introduced similar laws.
The Risks of Ignoring India’s Descent Into Autocracy
It is in the strategic interest of the United States and its allies to help reverse New Delhi’s authoritarian tendencies. Washington has long promoted India’s democratic, pluralist governance model as a regional counterweight to China’s authoritarianism at home and its export of dictatorial tactics abroad. If the United States were to ignore the recent democratic decline in India, it would undermine its own efforts to hold Beijing accountable for regional aggression and systematic human rights abuses.
Washington is working to formalize the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, composed of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. During a virtual meeting of the so-called Quad on March 12, Biden reaffirmed that the group’s shared democratic values formed the basis for peace, prosperity, and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, and Quad members created a new working group to ensure that critical and emerging technologies align with the principles of freedom and openness. To be sure, none of the countries in the group has a perfect record in fulfilling its democratic commitments, but India’s recent authoritarian practices have moved it into a different category, as reflected in Freedom House’s report. A more democratic India would provide the Quad with much greater legitimacy as the partnership works to strengthen regional cooperation and counter Beijing’s malign influence.
More broadly, if the government of the world’s most populous democracy can commit large-scale human rights violations and persecute its most marginalized communities while facing little or no pushback from foreign democratic leaders, other governments will be less likely to fear accountability for similar actions. For instance, intentional restrictions on internet connectivity have already been normalized as a legitimate policy tool around the world, thanks in large part to India’s dubious record as a global leader in internet shutdowns.
The U.S. government can help invert this scenario and shore up human rights protections globally by supporting the democratic aspirations of India’s people. During his visit, Austin has an opportunity to make clear that Washington will advocate for the fundamental rights of Indian civil society and peaceful protesters, and that any acts of repression will be met with public condemnation and reduced or conditioned bilateral cooperation.
Confronting authoritarian trends around the world requires a united front among democratic nations. If the Biden administration wants to turn the tide in favor of democracy, it should start by holding its partners accountable for abuses and helping to pull India back from the brink.