US human rights official urges Indian leaders to promote tolerance

Dr Sewall delivering an address on Democratic values and violent extremism in New Delhi on Jan 13, 2016.
Dr Sewall delivering an address on Democratic values and violent extremism in New Delhi on Jan 13, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - A top United States human rights official expressed concern on Thursday (Jan 14) about recent incidents of violence in India against religious minorities, urging national leaders to be vigilant in protecting the right of Indians to freedom of worship.

"We have concerns about some of the recent incidents here in India," said Dr Sarah Sewall, US under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, citing the mob killing of a Muslim man rumoured to have eaten beef and a string of attacks on churches last year.

"Much of the challenge is for political leaders, as well as religious leaders, to be setting a strong and firm example about the need to uphold constitutional protections," Dr Sewall told Reuters during an official tour of a mosque, church and Hindu temple in the Indian capital.

Dr Sewall's visit this week to New Delhi and Dharamsala, where she is due to meet Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, is part of a warming in US-India ties since tension between the allies spiked over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in the United States in 2013.

Ties have improved since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, though some sticking points remain over US visas issued to Indian citizens who have been trafficked in the United States, besides India's criminalisation of homosexuality.

US officials have said Indian citizens who have been issued US "T visas" have been subject to restrictions, including long delays in renewing passports at Indian consulates in the United States.

The United States still has some outstanding concerns about how those visas are being handled, Dr Sewall said, but added that she was "encouraged by the direction the practice was evolving". "I will say from the US side, we feel like the relationship is very much on track," Dr Sewall told Reuters.

She is scheduled to meet Indian officials to discuss areas of mutual concern, including violent extremism, migration and the protection of citizens from trafficking and slavery.