Nov 18, 2021 - World

U.S. ignores recommendation to put India on religious freedom violation list

President Biden is seen hosting India Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office.

President Biden meets with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney-Pool/Getty Images

The State Department has bypassed a recommendation from an independent government commission to name India to its "red list" of countries engaged in "systematic, ongoing and egregious" violations of religious freedom — for the second consecutive year.

Why it matters: The omission is the latest example of leniency applied to India by the administration and U.S. lawmakers. Strengthening ties with the world's largest democracy has featured prominently in both the Trump and Biden administrations' strategy for countering China.

  • Officials in New Delhi now regard China as their biggest security threat, aligning with U.S. concerns about Beijing's intent around the world.
  • Former President Trump had no qualms about embracing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was once banned from entering the U.S. over "severe violations of religious freedom" during his time as governor of the state of Gujarat.
  • For President Biden, who's pledged to place human rights at the "center" of his foreign policy, the issue is far more delicate.

Driving the news: Nadine Maenza, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Axios the Biden administration "missed an opportunity" to publicly pressure India by naming it as a "country of concern."

  • "We're disappointed that they're not looking at the conditions on the ground and how they're deteriorating," she said.
  • Since Modi's election in 2014, India has experienced democratic backsliding and frequent outbreaks of anti-Muslim mob violence.
  • Critics say Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has turned a blind eye to discrimination and imposed laws designed to marginalize Muslims.

Between the lines: The Biden administration appears to have made the judgment it would be more productive to address India's worsening human rights conditions in private, unless a more dramatic threshold is crossed.

  • "With China's belligerent rise — and India's willingness to work with the U.S. and other partners — the Biden administration will not want to put the relationship at risk over the current level of concern in these areas," says Richard Rossow, a U.S.-India expert at CSIS.
  • In the meantime, Biden has pressed ahead by hosting Modi at the White House and forging new ties through the Quad, a strategic dialogue between the U.S., India, Japan and Australia that Beijing views as hostile.
  • Biden also reportedly plans to invite India to his "Summit for Democracy" next month.

The big picture: This is not exclusive to India. U.S. administrations have long been more critical of human rights abuses in adversarial countries like Iran, for example, than in friendly ones like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Zoom out: The next test of Modi's free pass will be whether India is sanctioned for acquiring Russia's S-400 air defense system. That move is required under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

  • Turkey was sanctioned in 2020 for the same purchase, but unlike India, Turkey is a NATO ally. Its use of Russian military equipment could lead to U.S. security concerns, since the Russians could gain insight into U.S. defense capabilities.
  • "I think CAATSA sanctions would be simply disastrous for the transformation of the [U.S.-India] relationship," Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Axios.
  • The move could play into existing fears of America's unreliability as a partner, and push India even further toward Russia.

Senators from both parties, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), have called on Biden to issue a sanctions waiver for India.

  • A State Department spokesman said a decision has not been made, but that the U.S. urges all of its allies and partners "to forgo transactions with Russia that risk triggering sanctions under the CAATSA."
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