Will a Biden-Harris administration confront Modi on human rights?
Hours after Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Democratic leader on his “spectacular victory”.
Modi also reached out to Biden’s Vice President Kamala Harris, reminding the VP-elect of her Indian ancestry, she was born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, both of whom had moved to the US.
“Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans,” Modi said. “Chitti” is a Tamil word meaning aunt, and it was used by Harris during her campaign while speaking of what family means to her.
Harris’ victory sparked celebrations in her maternal grandfather’s hometown in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
New Delhi’s swift welcome of the new US leaders came amid concerns among Indian foreign policy experts over Modi’s public “endorsement” of his “friend”, current President Donald Trump, last September during a “Howdy Modi” extravaganza in the US city of Houston.
India enjoys a strong and growing relationship with the US, with five US presidents (Republican and Democrat) visiting the South Asian nation in the last 10 years – a point highlighted by India’s foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava, who tweeted: “Successive presidents and administrations have raised the level of this relationship even higher.”
But analysts believe that the Biden-Harris administration would not look away from human rights issues and the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir.
“Unlike Trump, who had no interest in human rights anywhere, Biden-Harris team is likely to bring up questions of human rights, minority rights and crushing of freedoms in Kashmir and elsewhere,” said Dibyesh Anand, professor of international relations at London’s University of Westminster and author of Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of fear.
“Either India will carry on with its worsening record on human rights without care for what the US says or it will seek to polish its image through cosmetic changes,” he said.
‘Protection of rights and civil liberties’
Biden’s election has raised hopes for the protection of rights and civil liberties, not only in the US but across the world, given his pledge that his administration will “restore America’s role and voice as a human rights champion on a global scale”.
“Biden’s win has come on the back of a Democratic party that has been very supportive of human rights within US and lot of the people who are now rising stars in the party have an interest in the rights situation in India,” said Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International in India.
“If people think that this is just about some statements when somebody is in opposition, they are wrong. This administration will make a difference.”
Since his re-election in May 2019, Modi’s administration has pushed through a series of policies seen by many as targeting India’s Muslim community, which – at nearly 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population – is the largest minority.
Last August, Modi’s government revoked the constitutionally guaranteed semi-autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir. A few months later, it passed a controversial citizenship law that critics said discriminates against Muslims.
Under Modi’s watch, hate crimes against minorities increased, with dozens of Muslims lynched by Hindu far-right mobs. Several activists, journalists and students critical of his government’s policies have been thrown in jail under draconian laws. In September, Amnesty International India was forced to shut down its operations in the country through legal pressure which the rights body says is “akin to freezing dissent.”
In his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, Biden condemned the Hindu nationalist government’s citizenship law and said he was disappointed with the implementation and the aftermath of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, where nearly 2 million people were effectively declared non-citizens.
“These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” Biden had said.
Regarding the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir, Biden has stated that the Indian government should take all necessary steps to “restore rights for all the people of Kashmir.”
Position on Kashmir
Harris, who made history by being the first woman to be elected vice president of the US, has taken a stronger position on Kashmir.
“We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world,” Harris said in October last year as a candidate in the Democratic primaries. “There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
Harris also took exception to India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar refusing to meet Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal during his visit to Washington.
Jaishankar had expressed disappointment with a Congressional resolution on Kashmir that Representative Jayapal had moved earlier.
“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal,” Harris tweeted.
In February, while Trump was in New Delhi, anti-Muslim riots broke out. He did not make a statement against the riots, something he was criticised for by Bernie Sanders, then seeking Democratic party candidature.
“Over 200 million Muslims call India home. Widespread anti-Muslim mob violence has killed at least 27 and injured many more. Trump responds by saying, ‘That’s up to India.’ This is a failure of leadership on human rights,” Sanders had tweeted.
India’s former ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, told Al Jazeera that each administration prioritises different issues within the broad framework of the relationship.
“It could be that the Biden-Harris administration places greater emphasis on democratic freedoms and human rights,” Shankar said.
However, she doesn’t expect that these issues have “top salience” in the relationship between India and the US, which she believes “will be driven by the converging strategic and security interests.”
Happymon Jacob, associate professor of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the Biden administration will have a more proactive policy towards human rights in India and Kashmir, but does not think they will be public about it.
“I think if there are concerns in the US they would be somehow conveyed to India in a subtle manner without making too much noise. I don’t think the Americans would humiliate Indian government at any cost because they are looking at the long-term game,” he said.
Despite the Modi government’s perceived preference for Trump in the elections, analysts say the countries will work closely and strengthen their ties.
“The optics of Modi’s apparent endorsement of Trump look particularly bad now, given Biden’s victory. But the (India-US) relationship truly is bipartisan, and it’ll be fine regardless of what person and what party is occupying the White House,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the US-based Wilson Center.
Kugelman added that while the incoming administration can be expected to focus on India’s human rights record, “at the end of the day it’s the cold, hard interests that matter the most.
“Biden will see India as a key partner that is critical to Washington’s efforts to push back against China, and he won’t want to risk antagonizing India by saying too much about rights issues, especially in Kashmir,” he said.
Biden has said that he is committed to strengthening the US-India relationship.
“The US and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbours,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in October in India-West.
Currently, the US is India’s biggest trading partner with nearly $90bn in annual bilateral trade. Since 2007, India has bought US weapons worth $22bn.
The two countries have signed three important agreements during the four years of the Trump administration, the most recent one signed only days before the US elections.
India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party maintains that the issue of Kashmir and the citizenship law are internal matters that will not impact US-India ties.
“Under the leadership of Modi we have made significant progress in terms of having better relationship with US. The confidence level of US for India has gone up. Whether there is a Democratic or Republican president in power in US, the relationship between US and India will continue to improve,” said BJP spokesman Syed Zafar Islam.
But Jacob believes with the change of administration in the US, there is every possibility of a policy change in New Delhi towards human rights.
“The Modi administration knows that the Democrats have an activist policy towards human rights and we may see a significant amount of policy change towards human rights in general and Kashmir issue [in particular],” he said.