Why Are the US and Australia Refusing to Openly Question India's Human Rights Record?

A recent State Department cable from the US Embassy in India dated February 17 – right after the Income Tax Department 'surveys' at BBC offices – highlights the Joe Biden government's careful wording when it comes to India.

New Delhi: Human Rights Watch has recently urged two governments – of the United States and Australia – to speak to the Indian government about the targeting of minorities and other human rights violations, but to no avail. Both countries appear to be treading carefully when it comes to confronting the Narendra Modi regime on its track record.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had raised human rights issues and the banning of US NGOs in India during his meeting with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar on Thursday, but made sure his language was restrained. “We discussed upholding of human rights issues with India. We regularly engage and encourage our Indian counterparts from India to uphold their own commitment to democracy and human rights. We do the same thing. In most conversations with Jaishankar, this is an issue we discuss as we did today,” said Blinken when asked by a US correspondent whether there are rising concerns in Washington over India’s alleged democratic backsliding and persecution of religious minorities.

Blinken said as the world’s two biggest democracies, “we have to work together to show that our democracies can deliver to people’s needs and uphold values that include respect for human rights and freedom of religious belief”. Asked about funding restrictions on American NGOs operating in India, Blinken said the issue had been taken up in the past. “We have had discussions about the importance of NGOs in civil society and that they be allowed to function effectively and freely here and in the US,” he said.

Before Blinken’s visit, Human Rights Watch had written to him outlining “several human rights concerns” that he could bring up with Modi.

During his India visit last June, Blinken had alleged “a rise in human rights abuses” in India though during his 2021 India visit he had said “both of our democracies are works in progress”.

Politico has reported on an unclassified recent State Department cable from the US Embassy in India dated February 17 – right after the Income Tax Department ‘surveys’ at BBC offices – that highlights the Joe Biden government’s careful wording when it comes to India. The cable, the report says, avoided any real analysis or judgment from US diplomats – instead, it only quoted opposition leaders or other critics to make remarks that go against the Indian government. For instance, the cable stated, “One senior journalist asked why Indian authorities confiscated phones of working level reporters when the alleged tax offenses would have been committed by BBC management.”

A State Department official told Politico that this was proof of the US government’s “clientitus”  – its tendency to parrot a host country’s line or at least avoid looking at it through a critical lens.

The Australian government too has refused to be drawn on human rights in India, prompting accusations it has shelved uncomfortable issues to boost trade and security ties. Human Rights Watch said the “quiet diplomacy” approach favoured by the West had failed to have any visible impact on India and urged the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to raise human rights during his visit to the country next week.

Ahead of his planned trip to India next week, Albanese was asked about the Gujarat riot allegations and whether he would raise contemporary human rights concerns with Modi. The prime minister did not engage with the substance of the question. He said he was determined to build a better relationship between Australia and India and he looked forward to having “positive discussions” with Modi.

Australian foreign minister Penny Wong, who is in India for the G20 foreign ministers’ meet, was also asked about India’s human rights track record and particularly the Gujarat riots. “We are friends, we are comprehensive strategic partners and we engage on human rights issues regularly,” is also she said, not going further into the details of the question. When asked about whether Australia was worried about the impact of the crackdown on the BBC documentary, Wong said, “Obviously, we have engaged with the Indian system on those issues and on other issues.”

Melbourne-based political analyst Grant Wyeth told the South China Morning Post that Wang’s decision was a calculated reticence. “The Indian government is very sensitive to being publicly embarrassed, and the Indian press is prone to performative outrage. So it’s best not to provide them with any fuel,” Wyeth said.

“Australia should realise that there’s great irony in that it is seeking to align with India as a bulwark against the threat to liberal ideas from the Chinese Communist Party but the BJP has a similar hostility to liberal democracy as the CCP,” he continued.

Elaine Pearson, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian that if Albanese and Wong were “uncomfortable raising these [human rights] concerns because they want closer trade and security ties with the Indian government, they should think long and hard about all the people who have been silenced in India who aren’t able to speak up because they fear being arrested or prosecuted”.