In Washington, lawmakers gathered for a day of debate that ended with the House of Representatives voting to impeach President Trump on charges that he abused his office and obstructed Congress. In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected in May, immense protests have erupted in recent days in response to the latest measure critics say amounts to a dangerous Hindu nationalist agenda.
Last week, India’s parliament approved a law that paves the way to citizenship for undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who moved to India before 2014 and belong to one of six religious minorities. Islam is not one of them.
Modi has described the law as a protective measure for persecuted religious groups, but its opponents see it as a worrisome violation of the country’s secular foundation and a deliberate effort to marginalize the country’s roughly 200 million Muslims.
As the Trump administration tries to maintain a friendly relationship with India, a partnership analysts say the White House sees as a key bulwark against Chinese influence in the region, it has stayed fairly quiet on mounting concerns that Modi’s government is sidelining Muslims.
The U.S. State Department has called on India to protect its religious minorities and urged calm after protests against the bill turned violent over the weekend. But the United States has stopped short of taking a firm stance on the controversial citizenship law.
“To come out with a striking statement ahead of [Wednesday’s talks] could have really derailed attempts to negotiate new agreements,” Richard Rossow, the Wadhwani chair in U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Today’s WorldView. “They really wanted to make sure they didn’t do anything to muddy the water.”
Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meetings, Pompeo said the United States cares “deeply and always will about protecting minorities, protecting religious rights everywhere.”
“We honor Indian democracy as they have a robust debate inside of India on the issue that you raised, and the United States will be consistent in the way that we respond to these issues, not only in India but all across the world,” he said.
But on Capitol Hill, some have spoken up more loudly. The House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted that the United States and India share religious pluralism and that a “religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet.”
And Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) called India’s new law “another attempt to effectively reduce Muslims in India to second-class citizens.”
Moves that have implicated Muslims in India since Modi’s reelection in May have many observers concerned.
In August, the Indian government revoked autonomy from majority-Muslim Kashmir and detained Kashmiri politicians. After removing the disputed region’s special status, Indian soldiers allegedly abused civilians, and communication with the Kashmir Valley was effectively cut off when the government shut off Internet access. This week, the shutdown broke a record for the longest Internet blackout in any democracy’s history. State Department officials have called for the release of detainees and expressed concerns over the lack of Internet access in Kashmir.
The Indian government also implemented a citizenship registry in Assam, a state in northeastern India with many Muslims, requiring residents to prove they are Indian citizens. Modi’s government has justified the move as necessary to weed out people who may have immigrated illegally from neighboring Bangladesh. But as The Washington Post reported from the ground, the complicated, bureaucratic process, which they completed earlier this year, could effectively render millions of people stateless.
And last month, India’s Supreme Court controversially approved a Hindu temple to be constructed on a disputed site where a mosque was destroyed.
That violent protests broke out just before a much-anticipated meeting between top officials from the United States and India probably made the White House even more careful of issuing heavy criticism, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Washington may have reason not to push Modi too hard, as it balances pressuring India on other issues to secure U.S. wins in trade and defense.
“The U.S. has made a fairly sizable bet on India that it’s going to be a counter balance or hedge against China in the Asia Pacific,” Vaishnav said. That means “Washington is not going to very easily take steps that are going to be seen as undermining that.”
At the #USIndia 2+2 Ministerial we explored ways to deepen our shared security, advance a free and open #IndoPacific region, and expand economic prosperity. These efforts, all built on the foundation of a strong strategic partnership, will benefit the people of both our nations. pic.twitter.com/r2tK2iZZKb— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 18, 2019
In India, the situation appears likely to escalate.
During Sunday’s protests, police stormed a university campus and struck protesters with batons. A local doctor told my colleagues in New Delhi that two young men with bullet wounds were brought into a hospital. (Delhi police denied any bullets were used.) In one particularly shocking viral video, a group of female students attempted to form a human shield around a young man as a throng of police officers whacked him with sticks, even as he laid in a fetal position. Civil society activists have called for more protests Thursday in 20 cities across the country.
The demonstrations aren’t just about the new law. They’re pushing back against a much larger pattern that has sparked worries that the “secular, democratic foundations of the state are under attack in a fundamentally unprecedented manner,” Vaishnav said.