Joti Kaur Rekhi: U.S. Sec. Def. Raises Human Rights Concerns With Indian Counterparts

“You've heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values and as a democracy that's pretty important to us."

Joti Kaur Rekhi
March 22, 2021 | 3.5 min. read

United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III was the first member of the Biden Administration to visit India, as its months-long Farmers Protest continues.

In the lead-up to the tour, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) had sent an impassioned request for the Def. Sec. to address increasing human rights violations and erosion of democracy with his Indian counterparts during the trip.  

The Chairman’s letter was brought up at a press conference with Def. Sec. Austin on day two of his visit. At that point, the Def. Sec. had met with Prime Minister Modi, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and other senior government officials.

Def. Sec. Austin was asked if he was concerned about the crackdown on peacefully protesting farmers, intimidation of journalists, and government critics, which were all brought up in Sen. Menendez’s March 17 letter to him.

He responded, “You've heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values and as a democracy that's pretty important to us. And, again, India is a democratic country and you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together.”

The Biden Administration has taken a cautious approach in addressing the Farmers Protest.

The only statement directly addressing the mass protest came from the State Department in Feb., in which the Administration encouraged both sides to resolve issues through communication.

The statement went on to read, “In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment.”

It also noted the democratic right to peacefully protest. 

As the movement enters its eighth month, demonstrators have been struck with tear gas and water cannons. Thousands, who are living in protest camps along Delhi’s borders, have had to face water, electricity, and internet shutdowns. Journalists, farmers, and activists have also been arbitrarily detained, and social media companies like Twitter have faced legal threats and action from the Modi government.

The Pentagon did not respond to requests from Baaz to comment on whether the Farmers Protest was discussed in meetings between Def. Sec. Austin and Indian government officials.

When asked during the March 20 Press conference in Delhi if he spoke to PM Modi about human rights violations, specifically against Muslims, Def. Sec. Austin said he did not have the opportunity to do so. But that he “did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet on this issue. And I think we have to remember that India is our partner and a partner whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions.” 

“And certainly, we feel comfortable in doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and still make progress.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have flagged the alarming rise of anti-minority violence under the Modi government, particularly against Muslims. Modi was also Chief Minister of Gujarat during the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 where over a thousand Muslims were killed. Modi was refused a US visa in 2005 as a result of his role in the violence.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said he invited Def. Sec. Austin to visit shortly after he was confirmed. Sitting alongside one another on March 20, Singh said he looked forward “to making the U.S.-India relationship one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

The Def. Sec.’s trip was promoted by the Pentagon as a tour to increase partnership and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

In his letter, Sen. Menendez acknowledged how critical the partnership with India is, but he said, “that includes urging the Indian government to uphold democratic values and human rights.”

He further wrote, “I strongly encourage you to make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the U.S.-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values.”

In his Feb. call with PM Modi, President Biden reaffirmed his “desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world.” He further said that “a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship.”

Citing a speech by the President regarding democratic values, Foreign Relations Committee Chair Menendez also joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in writing another letter regarding the issue to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 18.

Sec. Blinken accompanied Def. Sec. Austin in Tokyo and Seoul during the first half of the Indo-Pacific tour but didn’t visit India.

Sim Singh, Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager for the Sikh Coalition, expects the Biden Administration to take a stronger public stance against India’s recent state of affairs.

“As the United States looks to India as a strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden Administration must raise concerns about the use of force on protestors, detention of journalists and activists, and other such actions that are part of a broader, concerning pattern of democratic backslide in India. We are sincerely hopeful that Secretary Austin heeded calls from Senator Menendez and advocates by raising these concerns privately with India's leadership, as he did not appear to do so in his public remarks.”

As of press time, neither Senators’ press offices responded to requests for further comment regarding the Def. Sec. Austin’s visit to India.


Joti Kaur recently obtained her MSc in International Public Policy from UCL in London. Her research focused on the disappearances and extrajudicial executions that occurred in Punjab following the Sikh Genocide of 1984. Prior to returning to school, she worked as a local television reporter for five years. Advocating for others has always been at the core of her work. She remains a voice for the voiceless. You can find Joti on Twitter at @ThisIsJoti.

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