The Biden administration’s own catalogs of human rights abuses, repression, and democratic backsliding in India appear to have been relegated to back shelves, as the president prepares to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a lavish state dinner at the White House this week. Rather than pinning its hopes on a partnership that has eluded successive administrations, the Biden camp would do well to consult its own experts on the wisdom of such a tight embrace.

Since taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden has extended this honor to only two other global leaders – French President Emmanuel Macron in December and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol in April. While India is touted as the world’s largest democracy, human rights advocates have long sounded the alarm about increasing violations of international norms, as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tightens its grip on power and pursues an ultranationalist agenda. Some protesters planning to gather in front of the White House this week have dubbed it “Hindu supremacy” for its emphasis on Hindu majoritarianism and its escalating hate speech against and attacks on Muslims, who make up about 15 percent of India’s population.  

Biden’s isn’t the first U.S. administration to try to cultivate India as a potential bulwark against China in Asia and for its still-burgeoning trade and regional security potential. The White House announcement of the state dinner made no reference to “democracy,” positive or negative, much less human rights: “The visit will strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defense, clean energy, and space.”

But India has long been reluctant to play the regional security role the United States has urged, to the frustration of successive administrations. India’s primary interest in the relationship has always been economic, technological, and perhaps reputational in the association with democratic traditions, however flawed in their implementation in the United States. Modi enthusiastically took the reins of the Group of 20 (G20) nations in December for India’s 12-month turn in the presidency of that economic grouping. And India’s proximity to China and dependence on it for trade makes Modi’s administration cautious about any confrontation, despite their differences. India also has declined to toe the U.S. line on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As longtime India policy analyst Ashley J. Tellis wrote recently, India “does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense.”

Yet, the White House is again courting this longshot security alliance, even as its ostensible partner undermines some of the very values they should have in common. The U.S. government’s own reports tell the tale. This year alone, the State Department’s annual reports on human rights, religious freedom, and trafficking in persons and the annual report of another U.S. government body, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress, outline the trend of attacks on Muslims, human rights defenders, and others. USCIRF recommended in its annual report in May that the administration “designate India as a `country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

The accounts include cases such as that of Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was arrested in November 2021 by India’s National Investigation Agency on charges of “terror funding” and “conspiracy.” He remains in pretrial detention, which the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices says “has been extended at least five times.” Parvez worked to document human rights violations in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area, for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), and served as chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, and human rights groups believe he is being detained in retaliation for his criticism.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a group of human rights experts, called on Indian authorities on June 5 to release him immediately and grant him “enforceable right to compensation and other reparations.” They concluded that his detention violates numerous articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “The Working Group is seriously concerned about the chilling effects of his arrest and prolonged detention on civil society, human rights defenders and journalists in India who are exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, opinion and association in conducting their work,” the experts wrote.

Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), commented that “The arbitrary and unjust detention of Khurram Parvez is not an isolated incident but the result of India’s relentless attacks on those who expose the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s discriminatory and abusive policies.” 

`Mass Atrocity Risk’

Researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last year went so far as to declare a “rising mass atrocity risk” in India, ranking it second in the year’s “Early Warning Project Statistical Risk Assessment,” the highest risk and rank to date. Waris Husain, a human rights attorney and adjunct professor of international human rights law at Howard University School of Law in Washington D.C., said in an interview for the museum: “Over the last decade, especially under the Narendra Modi administration and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling party, exclusionary ideology—a known mass atrocity risk factor-–has escalated. In this case, the ideology is Hindutva nationalism, which depicts India’s Muslim population as a rapidly expanding threat that must be culled. 

The U.S. has leveled penalties against Modi himself in the past. In 2005, the  Bush administration denied him a visa for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” in connection with the deaths of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, during sectarian violence in Gujarat state in 2002, soon after Modi had become chief minister there. Modi denied any culpability, and India’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor. The United States lifted the visa ban when he became prime minister in 2014. He has visited the United States several times since then, including for meetings with presidents and to address the United Nations, but has never before received the honor of a formal state dinner. 

But Modi’s past continues to haunt him. In January, Indian authorities blocked a BBC documentary about the 2002 events called “India: The Modi Question,” banned clips on social media, and deployed police against students gathered around attempted screenings.

To be sure, the U.S. government reports cataloging violations also cite instances of government compliance with the law or of attacks against Hindus by “Islamic terror group members and other militants.” However, in the latter instance, the annual Human Rights Practices report, for example, notes that human rights advocates reported that the “security operations sought not only to suppress terrorism but also to force tribal populations from their land.”

The Biden administration, of course, could argue that the mere existence of these comprehensive reports shows that it is not ignoring such abuses. But the sheer volume and global scope of these reports make it increasingly difficult for resource-strapped U.S. media to give them more than snapshot coverage, missing an opportunity to make clear that the world is watching and to perhaps prompt improvements if for no other reason than to preserve India’s global stature and restore its democratic credibility. Indian news media often give more and repeated attention to the reports, but they too are under political pressure. In addition to attacks on journalists, often by Hindu and/or BJP-aligned nationalists, a business magnate close to Modi last year launched a hostile takeover bid for New Delhi Television (NDTV), one of the country’s oldest broadcasters.

Calibrating the Embrace

The United States understandably wants to – and should – cultivate good relations with India as a country and with its people, given the longstanding ties and mutual affinity, not to mention the extensive and active expatriate community in the United States. But the pattern and direction of human rights violations and democratic backsliding to the point of danger in India make it clear that a state dinner, which necessarily celebrates a country’s leader even more than the country itself, should never have been undertaken in the first place. Now that it is just two days away, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other administration officials must recommit to carrying out their pledges to place human rights at the “center” of their foreign policy, before India’s backward slide dilutes any value of security and economic ties. Members of Congress also have a role to play – Modi is scheduled to give his second address to a joint session during this visit. Among steps the U.S. could take:

  • Make clear to Modi that U.S. respect for India goes beyond any single leader and is tied to mutual respect for common universal values and based on the principles of democracy and the civil liberties and rule of law required for it to function in full.
  • Remind Modi of the dangers of supporting extreme rhetoric and unbounded nationalism, as the United States itself has found in recent years.
  • In the days after the dinner, the administration should adopt the recommendations of USCIRF and more vigorously support the calls of United Nations experts for improvements on human rights.
  • When violations occur, U.S. officials should call them out directly, immediately, and prominently, on the basis of mutual respect, which by definition goes both ways.
  • Calibrate joint defense, energy, technology and other projects based on an understanding that those very collaborations will succeed and be sustainable only in the presence of democratic institutions and respect for human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law.

The administration’s own National Security Strategy references human rights 20 times. “Actions to bolster democracy and defend human rights are critical to the United States not only because doing so is consistent with our values, but also because respect for democracy and support for human rights promotes global peace, security, and prosperity,” the strategy declares.

Yet, when U.S. officials have been asked about the findings of their own reports on India, they generally respond with generic, equivocating statements that don’t convey the kind of moral outrage that such violations should spur, based on the administration’s own declared policies. In response to a question from an India Today reporter in March about the religious freedom report’s criticism of conditions in India, for example, Blinken said, “We have an ongoing dialogue on both of our democracies and human rights, because, as the world’s two largest democracies, it’s central to who we are…And when questions or issues come up, we discuss them directly, very openly, very freely.” He never got specific. At least in April 2022, he called a spade a spade, referring to “a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials” in India, but again, as Reuters noted, “Blinken did not elaborate,” and neither did his Indian counterpart feel compelled to explain such practices.

The following excerpts provide just a few examples of India’s violations of human rights and other international standards and values that the Biden administration’s own experts have documented for 2022 alone.

U.S. State Department’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (released March 20, 2023):

  • “The states and union territories have primary responsibility for maintaining law and order, with policy oversight from the central government. Police are within state jurisdiction. The Ministry of Home Affairs controls most paramilitary forces, the internal intelligence bureaus, and national law enforcement agencies, and provides training for senior officials from state police forces.”
  • “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and existence of forced and compulsory labor.
  • “A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.”
  • “In March 2021, UN special rapporteurs asked the central government to provide details regarding allegations of arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir, including the status of Naseer Ahmad Wani, who disappeared in 2019 after being questioned by army soldiers. The location of Wani was still unknown at year’s end.”
  • “On July 29, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance and UN special rapporteurs expressed concern over continued allegations of lack of identification, protection, and preservation of large numbers of unmarked single and mass burial sites in Kashmir, including the failure to conduct proper forensic investigations, efforts to search for the forcibly disappeared, and the lack of progress in identifying the remains of individuals buried therein in accordance with international standards. The rapporteurs stated they were concerned by reports of intimidation and harassment against individuals and civil society organizations, including human rights defenders and journalists, who called for investigation and accountability.”
  • “Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the central government may designate a state or union territory as a “disturbed area,” authorizing security forces in the state to use deadly force to “maintain law and order” and to arrest any person “against whom reasonable suspicion exists” without informing the detainee of the grounds for arrest. The law also provides security forces immunity from civilian prosecution for acts committed in regions under the AFSPA. “
  • “The Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Jammu and Kashmir, permits authorities to detain persons without charge or judicial review for up to two years without visitation from family members.  In April, the press reported that more than 500 persons remained in detention under the PSA in Jammu and Kashmir.”
  • In India overall, “police reportedly continued to arrest persons arbitrarily.  There were reports of police detaining individuals for custodial interrogation without identifying themselves or providing arrest warrants.” (The report cites the above-referenced case of Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez and several others.)
  • “Pretrial detention was arbitrary and lengthy, sometimes exceeding the duration of the sentence given to those convicted.  NCRB data reported 427,165 prisoners were awaiting trial at the end of 2021, totaling 77 percent of the country’s prison population. “
  • “There were some reports the government evicted persons from their places of residence, seized their property, or bulldozed homes without due process or adequate restitution citing illegalities in the construction of the buildings. Human rights activists reported the government was allegedly targeting vocal critics from the Muslim community and using the bulldozers to destroy their homes and livelihoods.” (The report cites two specific instances, one affecting a Muslim activist’s family, and another involving an unspecified number of homes of Muslims and Hindus in what human rights groups said were acts of retaliation.)
  • “There were reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials at both the local and national levels intimidated media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement.  Some NGOs alleged criminal prosecutions and investigations were used to intimidate journalists critical of the government.” (The report cites multiple specific casts of freedom-of-expression violations.)
  • “The Reporters without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index described the country as “dangerous for journalists,” with “repeated violations” by police, political activists, criminal groups, and local officials.  The report also identified “coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder” on social media, calling them “even more violent” when they target women journalists.”
  • “According to Human Rights Watch, at least 35 journalists had faced assaults, police interrogations, raids on their places of work, fabricated cases, and restrictions on movement in Jammu and Kashmir since 2019.”
  • “The government repeatedly imposed temporary internet shutdowns and blocked telecommunications, including the internet in certain regions, particularly during periods of political unrest.“
  • “The government’s increased monitoring and regulation of some NGOs that received foreign funding drew criticism from civil society… Minister of State for Union Ministry of Home Affairs Nityanand Rai told parliament the government cancelled registration certificates of 1,811 associations across the country under the provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) between 2019 and 2021, while 783 applications for renewals were denied. Some NGOs stated they were denied renewals as reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” topics such as human rights or environmental activism.” (The report cites the targeting of Oxfam International for renewal denial and for a September 2022 raid on its offices in which computer servers were copied. A think tank, a media foundation, and CARE India also were subject to IT raids.)
  • “State governments continued to pass laws… [seeking] to make forced religious conversion by marriage a criminal offense. Supporters of the laws sometimes characterized them as preventing “love jihad” or Muslim men attempting to marry Hindu women for the purposes of religious conversion. Civil society groups criticized the laws as violating constitutional protections on freedom of religion, but some survey data suggested religious minority communities themselves sometimes expressed support for anticonversion measures.” (The report outlines multiple cases of mob attacks, killings, and home demolitions related to racial/ethnic hatred or in opposition to inter-faith marriage.)

U.S. State Department’s 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: India (released May 15, 2023):

  • “There were numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states, including plainclothes police in Gujarat publicly flogging four Muslim men accused of injuring Hindu worshippers during a festival in October, and the Madhya Pradesh State government bulldozing Muslim-owned homes and shops following communal violence in Khargone in April. In June, UN special rapporteurs on adequate housing, minority issues, and freedom of religion and belief wrote the government to express their “serious concerns” about the “punitive” demolitions in Khargone, which they stated were “ordered by local governments arbitrarily to punish Muslim minorities and low-income communities.” In October, a report drafted by a citizens committee stated there were “multiple instances of apparent police complicity” in violent actions against protestors, who were mostly Muslim, in the Delhi riots in 2020.”
  • “In multiple states, police arrested Christians accused of forcing others to convert. Christian groups said police sometimes aided crowds who disrupted worship services the crowds said were forcibly converting Hindus. In its report covering events during the year, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) said Christians were “increasingly targeted using these anticonversion laws,” as “allegations of forced conversion, no matter if false, have led many Christians to be attacked, arrested and detained by police.” There were also some reports that police arrested Hindus who attacked those accused of forcing others to convert.”
  • “On April 26, 108 former senior government officials wrote Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that government discrimination against religious minorities, “particularly Muslims, in states like Assam, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand,” was “undermining” the country’s constitution.”
  • “In its annual report, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government `continued its systematic discrimination and stigmatization of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims.’”
  • “Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states throughout the year. These included incidents of “cow vigilantism” against non-Hindus based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef and incidents in which Muslim men were alleged to have married Hindu women to convert them. There were also attacks on pastors, disruption of Christian and Muslim worship services, and vandalism of churches.”
  • “The National Crimes Record Bureau reported 378 instances of communal violence in 2021 (most recent data) compared to 857 in 2020. Religious leaders, academics, political figures, and activists made inflammatory public remarks about religious minorities. Examples included Yati Narasinghanand Saraswati, described as a Hindu religious extremist, who urged Hindus to “take up arms” against the threat of religious conversion and Muslim rule in the country; BJP state politician Haribhushan Thakur Bachaul, who said that Muslims should be “set ablaze”; P.C. George, a former legislator in Kerala State, who encouraged Hindus and Christians to not eat at restaurants run by Muslims; and former BJP Rajasthan state legislator Gyan Dev Ahuja, who encouraged Hindus to kill Muslims suspected of cow slaughter. Police charged all four for their comments, and their cases were at different levels of investigation and prosecution at year’s end.”

U.S. State Department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report: India (released June 15, 2023)

  • “The Government of India does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”
  • “Shortcomings in protection services for victims, especially children, remained unaddressed; efforts to audit government-run or -funded shelters were inadequate.”
  • “Many victims waited years to receive central-government mandated compensation.” 
  • “The government did not amend Section 370 of the Penal Code to criminalize all forms of trafficking.”

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal government agency that advises the President, Secretary of State, and Congress, Annual Report on conditions worldwide in 2022, released May 1, 2023:

  • Recommends India as one of 17 “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
  • “In 2022, religious freedom conditions in India continued to worsen. Throughout the year, the Indian government at the national, state, and local levels promoted and enforced religiously discriminatory policies, including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs, and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis (indigenous peoples and scheduled tribes).”
  • “The national government also continued to suppress critical voices—particularly religious minorities and those advocating on their behalf—including through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property, and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and by targeting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).”
  • “The Indian government invoked the UAPA and the Sedition Act throughout the year to target freedom of religion and expression, creating an increasing climate of intimidation and fear. Authorities surveilled, harassed, detained, and prosecuted a number of journalists, lawyers, rights activists, and religious minorities advocating for religious freedom. Hundreds of cases remained pending against individuals for involvement in the 2019 peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which provides a pathway to citizenship strictly for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.”
  • “The continued enforcement of discriminatory laws facilitated a culture of impunity for widespread campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups.”
  • “Throughout the year, destruction of property—including places of worship in predominantly Muslim and Christian neighborhoods—continued.”
  • “Social media platforms continued to facilitate widespread disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence toward religious minorities. In February, Twitter removed a caricature shared by the verified account of Gujarat BJP depicting Muslim men hung by a noose.”
IMAGE: President Joe Biden (R) gestures with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022. (Photo by DOUG MILLS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)