Why the US State Department has largely been muted on India's moves against Muslims

Indian students from different organisations protest against the new citizenship law at Osmania University campus in Hyderabad, India, on Dec 17, 2019. PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - China's detention of one million ethnic Uighur Muslims has been described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as Orwellian, a "gross human rights violation" and "one of the worst stains on the world of this century."

In Myanmar, the ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims is "deeply abhorrent to our way of life" and displayed "shocking and brutal violence", according to State Department officials.

But American diplomats have offered only muted public criticism of India's moves against Muslims, seemingly wary of alienating even an unpredictable ally as the United States confronts China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific region.

The stark contrast over religious protections for Muslims reveals an undercurrent in high-level meetings this week between the US and India on a range of diplomatic and military issues.

The meetings, in Washington, are scheduled as protests rage across India over the country's new legislation to fast-track citizenship for migrants of all of South Asia's major religions except Islam.

The unrest follows months of high anxiety in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region claimed by both India and Pakistan; in August, Kashmir was besieged by Indian security forces and saw its decades-long autonomy revoked.

Ms Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for issues in South and Central Asia, said last week that the Trump administration was closely watching the situation in Kashmir and continued to call for the release of detainees and for political and economic normalcy to be restored.

"I don't want to diminish the challenges that we have in the relationship," Ms Wells said in a speech previewing Wednesday's (Dec 18) meetings between the two nations' top diplomats and defence chiefs.

She noted concerns in Congress about India's citizenship Bill and said residents in Kashmir "are entitled to their full rights under the Indian Constitution, which enshrines the respect for religious freedom of all Indians".

"The message I want to leave with you is that there are challenges," Ms Wells said, "but we're working together to overcome them in ways that would have seemed impossible in the past."

Representative Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, one of three Muslim lawmakers in Congress, called the citizenship Bill "yet another attempt to effectively reduce Muslims in India to second-class citizens".

He said it was the latest attempt by the country's Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, to "promote Hindu supremacy" in the world's most populous democracy.

Under Mr Pompeo, the State Department has elevated the issue of religious freedom and its role in foreign policy to include, for the first time, hosting annual meetings of senior foreign diplomats to discuss challenges to faith-based liberty.

"All governments have a duty to protect people from harm regardless of their beliefs, and to hold perpetrators of persecution accountable," Mr Pompeo said in August, while the siege in Kashmir was under way.

At the time, he cited religious persecution in China, Iran and Myanmar, but not India.

A briefing last month by Mr Sam Brownback, the State Department's special ambassador for international religious freedom, was notably silent on the plight of Muslims in Kashmir.

And in an Oct 28 speech about Tibetan Buddhism, delivered in India, Mr Brownback urged governments to protect "religious freedom for all people, everywhere, all the time" - but never once mentioned the anti-Muslim moves by Mr Modi's government.

In statements this week, the State Department urged India to "protect the rights of its religious minorities".

It called on the authorities to respect peaceful protests against the citizenship legislation and urged demonstrators to refrain from violence.

The department also urged India's government to reopen mosques and shrines in Kashmir that were closed because of the unrest and said it was concerned by restrictions on cellphone and Internet access.

Separately, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body, called the new citizenship legislation a "dangerous turn in the wrong direction" and said that the US should consider sanctions against India.

The citizenship Bill and Kashmir are expected to be raised by the US at the meetings with India's foreign and defence ministers. But those issues are not the focus of the discussions.

Trade, defence and counterterrorism efforts, and fostering closer ties through business, education and science top the agenda.

But the underlying theme of the talks will be countering China and Russia, and the Trump administration is pulling India closer to offset the other powers' influence in the region.

Both the US and India oppose China's military moves in the South China Sea and what experts describe as its intimidation of India, Japan and smaller states in Asia.

They also both oppose China's Belt and Road Initiative to link the economies of Asia, Europe and Africa and put Beijing at the centre of global trade and enhance its geopolitical ambitions.

India has also struggled to respond to Beijing's increased influence in the Indian Ocean and is limited in the ways it can forcibly push back against China, with whom it shares a border of more than 4,000km.

"We need like-minded partners," Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said in New Delhi in August.

"That's why the vitality of the US-India partnership is such an important factor in determining whether China ultimately succeeds in reshaping Asia to its purposes."

Mr Sullivan did not mention Kashmir in his speech, although he cited religious freedom as a value that both India and the US "hold dear".

Pentagon officials are also trying to dissuade India from buying a missile defence system from Russia, offering both an incentive - in the possibility of instead purchasing US-made arms - and a threat of sanctions if the sale with Moscow goes through.

Last month, Russia's chief arms trade executive said India had already paid US$800 million (S$1.08 billion) for five S-400 missile systems.

Mr Randall Schriver, an assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said the US and India had made great strides over the last two years, syncing lines of communications, holding annual amphibious military exercises and increasing arms sales to India.

"Defence trade has been a very positive area of our relationship," Mr Schriver told reporters last week.

The two countries have together spent about US$18 billion in security cooperation, he said, "starting from basically zero in 2002".

Despite "complexities" between the US and India, the meetings on Wednesday could yield significant agreements to expand defence training, military sales and collaboration on security technology, said Dr Ashley Tellis, a former diplomat and National Security Council official under president George W. Bush.

But the diplomatic effort is not expected to paper over deep divisions between the two countries, including a trade deal that stalled after the Trump administration stripped India of a special status.

New Delhi retaliated by raising tariffs on US$1.4 billion worth of US imports, including almonds, walnuts, apples and finished metal items.

Nor is it likely to change India's mind about its treatment of Muslims.

Dr Tellis said the Trump administration had "been very conscious to not do anything publicly that might embarrass India" - which is why, he predicted, the State Department had toned down its criticism of the anti-Muslim actions.

"There is a perception that India is a strategic ally and a partner," said Dr Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Whatever their discomfort with the Modi government's policies are, I think they want to allow the Indian democratic process to work itself out and see where the country comes out."

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