As Indian democracy declines, will Eric Garcetti, the new US ambassador to India, uphold his commitment?
Quizzing US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on 6 April 2022, Representative Ilhan Omar asked: “Why has the Biden administration been so reluctant to criticize Modi’s government on human rights?”
Representative Omar’s question came a little less than a year before Eric Garcetti was finally confirmed as the US’s ambassador to India, filling a position that had lain vacant since the day Donald Trump departed the presidency in January 2021. Now that President Joe Biden is finally sending an official representative to Delhi, Omar’s enquiry takes on greater relevance. Will the Biden administration, represented by Ambassador Garcetti, finally call Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to task for his regime’s rapidly escalating violations of human rights?
In that regard, Garcetti’s past remarks during the confirmation process were promising, if unfortunately rather vague and confined to a single occasion.
Responding to questions by Senator Ben Cardin at a 14 December 2021 Senate Foreign Relations hearing about his nomination, Garcetti declared, “The US-India relationship should be underpinned by our common commitment to democracy, to human rights, and to civil society. It’s enshrined in our constitutions — the oldest democracy in the world and the largest democracy in the world. Human rights and defense of democracy is a pillar of our foreign policy.” Thus, he promised, human rights will be a “core part” of his diplomatic agenda in India and he will “actively raise these issues.”
Garcetti’s background certainly suggests he might be a particularly strong candidate for the position which he has now — after taking the oath of office on 24 March 2023 — filled.
As he noted in response to Senator Cardin’s enquiries, Garcetti has a Masters Degree “in human rights and international law.” While studying in England, he reportedly worked with Amnesty International. Later in his professional career, he apparently served on the board of Human Rights Watch’s California chapter.
Yet, as Cardin asked: “How do you balance our need to work with India as a strategic partner, but making advancements on human rights?”
It’s an especially pertinent question in context of what has happened in India under the past nine years of Modi. Pressing Deputy Secretary Sherman in 2022, for instance, Congresswoman Omar wondered what it will take for the Biden administration to directly raise human rights concerns with India. As she demanded: “How much does the Modi administration have to criminalize the act of being Muslim in India for us to say something? I ask you again: what will it take for us to outwardly criticize the actions that the Modi administration is taking against its Muslim minorities in India?”
Indeed, even as democracy is rapidly declining in India, the US — including under Biden — has intensified its intimacy with the Modi-ruled nation.
Since the 1990s, the US-India relationship has been on an almost nonstop upward trajectory, last culminating in 2016 with India being named a Major Defense Partner of the United States. The connection only deepened under Trump, who first joined Modi on stage at a 2019 Houston, TX event where the prime minister declared (in essence) “once more, the Trump regime” to the up for reelection president. The two again joined each other in 2020 for a secondary “dance of love” in Modi’s home state, Gujarat, at the same time that top officials in Modi’s government were instigating an anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi.
Nothing has changed under Biden, whose administration continues to romance the Modi regime.
Modi and Biden have certainly engaged in far less fawning over each other than did Modi and Trump. Yet, as Time magazine reported, “India’s relationship with the U.S. significantly improved in 2022: Biden met with Modi twice, strengthening trade ties between the two countries, and reinforcing the regional Quad security dialogue with Japan and Australia.” Furthermore, Biden, for the first time since his election, reportedly intends to host Modi for an official state visit in Summer 2023.
Meanwhile, despite nearly 20 Indian-American human rights outfits requesting he vet appointees for ties to American affiliates of radical Hindu nationalist outfits in India, Biden proceeded in 2022 to appoint both of the two named as concerning in addition to a third: Amit Jani, Sonal Shah, and Chandru Acharya.
To date, Biden’s administration has shown practically zero signs of prioritizing human rights in the US-India relationship. In fact, quite the opposite.
Mostly recently, in February 2023, after leading what Hindustan Times called “the most high-powered United States Congressional delegation to visit India” and meet Modi, US Senator Chuck Schumer — the senior-most senator and Senate Majority Leader — declared: “We need nations such as India, the world’s largest democracy, to work with us to strengthen democracies in Asia and around the globe.”
Schumer went on to stress: “Close ties between our two countries would be a crucial counterweight to outcompete China and responding to its authoritarianism.” That doesn’t just mean “cooperating with India on defense and security,” he emphasized, but rather taking “an all out, all-of-the-above approach” which includes “working to strengthen our economic ties, expand our trade, and make it easier to recruit talented workers from abroad to work in our country.” In short, as the top legislator in Biden’s Democratic Party, Schumer is pushing an apparently unconditional, no pre-nuptial agreement required marriage of the US and India.
The disastrous aspect of such a relationship is that it’s being pushed at a time when, among other things, the Modi regime is de facto criminalizing the opposition and moving the country in the direction of being a one-party state.
On 24 March 2023, the day Garcetti was sworn-in, India’s main opposition leader — Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress — was expelled from Parliament. This followed Gandhi’s sentencing, on 23 March, to two years imprisonment on a “criminal” defamation charge for remarks he made in 2019 where he mocked Modi as a “thief.”
This latest development, which comes just a year before India’s next General Election begins, is a culmination of a long series of events that, as Gandhi noted at a 4 March 2023 forum hosted by the Chatham House think tank in London, amount to “an attack on the basic structure of democracy” in India.
The motivating force behind this assault on Indian democracy is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the paramilitary parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — and its desire to transform the country into an officially Hindu nation. Since the RSS-BJP took national power in 2014, with Modi as prime minister, its Hindu nationalist (also known as “Hindutva”) agenda has taken root in a wide variety of ways at both the street and the state level.
Academics, activists, and attorneys — ranging from Muslim professor of English Dr. Hany Babu to Catholic priest Fr. Stan Swamy to Dalit writer Dr. Anand Teltumbde — have been rounded up and indefinitely imprisoned on far-flung and far-fetched conspiracy charges. Journalists such as Mohammed Zubair or Irfan Mehraj or Siddique Kappan or Asif Sultan, human rights activists such as Khurram Parvez and Safoora Zargar, environmental activists such as Disha Ravi and Nikita Jacob, student activists such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, even elected officials like Jignesh Mevani, and countless others have all faced arrest. Activists like Aakar Patel and journalists like Rana Ayyub have been barred from exiting India, while journalists like Aatish Taseer have been banned from entering.
For the past five years, India has topped the list of countries with the most internet shutdowns; since 2014, it has shut down the net nearly 700 times, often for months at a time and across entire states.
Amnesty International India was shut down. A BBC documentary critical of Modi’s alleged role in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom was banned, students who tried screening it were arrested, and the media outlet’s India offices were raided. The BJP has extrajudicially deployed bulldozers to destroy homes and shops of Muslim activists. Multiple states have passed so-called “love jihad” laws (which essentially criminalize interfaith marriage) and “anti-conversion” laws (which essentially criminalize religious freedom). And, of course, the central government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (which basically premises acquisition of citizenship on a religious basis) and intends national implementation of the National Register of Citizens (which requires Indian residents prove their citizenship; after implementation in Assam, nearly two million residents were rendered stateless).
Due to all this and more, India — as Cardin noted in his exchange with Garcetti — was downgraded in 2021 from “free” to “partly free” by US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, which has maintained that ranking into 2023. Also in 2021, the Swedish Varieties of Democracy Institute downgraded India from an “electoral democracy” to an “electoral autocracy” (“autocracy” being a fancy word for a dictatorship); as of 2023, India remains in that category. According to V-Dem’s ranking system, that puts India on the same level as regional neighbors like Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as large nations like Egypt, Turkey, and Russia.
V-Dem’s latest report, in crediting the autocratization of India to the rise of an “anti-pluralist” party, explains: “Anti-pluralist parties and their leaders lack commitment to the democratic process, disrespect fundamental minority rights, encourage demonization of political opponents, and accept political violence.”
Political violence, indeed. While Indian democracy under the BJP is taking a huge hit at the state level, its decline is most viscerally illustrated at the street level.
Beginning in late 2021, Hindu nationalist demagogues and even media tycoons began routinely hosting mass gatherings, of hundreds or even thousands of people, where they often distribute weapons before leading the audience in oaths to socially and economically boycott religious minorities (especially Muslims), to “fight, kill, and die if necessary” to turn India into a Hindu nation, and to attack non-Hindus. BJP leaders and elected officials frequently join these events.
In 2020, soon after a BJP cabinet minister issued a call to “shoot the traitors,” Delhi witnessed a pogrom against Muslims. Anti-Muslim violence broke out in Tripura in 2021 and Madhya Pradesh in 2022, to name just two of many significant violent outbreaks. Meanwhile, frequent lynchings of Muslims have continued — including, in February 2023, the burning alive of two Muslim cattle traders by Monu Manesar, a Hindutva activist who has been pictured with politicians as influential as Home Minister Amit Shah.
Christians, too, face street violence. Almost every year since 2014, the documented number of attacks on Indian Christians has increased. In 2022, the top Indian-American Christian organization reported “1,198 cases of verified violence against Christians in India, a 157 percent increase from the previous year.” The vast majority of reported incidents appear to be attacks by large armed mobs who typically invade churches during Sunday services.
Attacks on Dalits, Sikhs, and other communities have also all massively increased in recent years, many of the violent incidents having either an overtly communal angle linked to Hindutva or being clearly politically-motivated.
This is the situation in an India which Senator Schumer — in the face of all factual reality — believes is currently capable of serving as a “counterweight” against “authoritarianism” and helping to “strengthen democracies in Asia and around the globe.” Yet, while Schumer works towards an unconditional partnership with Modi’s India, neither the dire human rights situation there nor the primary instigator of it have escaped the notice of other entities within the US government.
In fact, the most recent reports about human rights in India from the US State Department as well from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are damning. Notably, USCIRF blames much of the present situation on the RSS, explaining:
“The BJP-led government and leaders at the national, state, and local level have advocated, instituted, and enforced sectarian policies seeking to establish India as an overtly Hindu state, contrary to India’s secular foundation and at grave danger to India’s religious minorities…. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization closely affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, aggressively advocates for a pure Hindu state…. The RSS is a paramilitary force that acts in support of the current government’s Hindu-nationalist policies.”
Plenty of US officials, both past and present, have recognized the threat posed by the RSS and its supremacist agenda.
For instance, in a 14 March 2023 interview with Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, Omar noted that “the political movement [ie, the RSS] that supports and that Modi is part of is also responsible for the assassination or the death of [Mohandas] Gandhi.” Meanwhile, US diplomats who’ve engaged with India have clearly called out how the RSS pulls the strings of the BJP.
Writing about his experiences in India in the 1990s, former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called the BJP the “political wing” of the RSS. Noting that the RSS backs and often instigates “tearing down mosques and burning churches,” he warned, “The BJP included — and not just on its fringes — sectarian zealots who were implicated in incidents of communal violence.” While serving as the US Ambassador to India in 2007, David Mulford reported back to Washington that the RSS is the BJP’s “muscle power,” writing, “The RSS can survive without the BJP but the BJP cannot exist without the RSS. This inextricably links the BJP to the RSS’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agenda.”
These analyses were bipartisan: Talbott was a Clinton appointee and Mulford was a Bush Jr. appointee.
As Garcetti heads to India, one question arises: what approach will he take to engaging with the RSS? Engage, unfortunately, he must. After all, as Indian author Arundhati Roy wrote in 2020: “The RSS has stepped up its game. No longer a shadow state or a parallel state, it is the state.” If that’s the case, then avoidance is not the answer, but what type of engagement the US’s representative in India will pursue with the world’s most powerful paramilitary is definitely the question.
It’s a particularly important question concerning the drama with (now former) Ambassador Atul Keshap.
Before Garcetti was confirmed, a series of “acting ambassadors” temporarily filled the position he’s now taking. One of those was Keshap. The day before his tenure ended, Keshap did what no other US ambassador has ever done before: visited the RSS headquarters to pose for a photo-op with its supreme leader, Mohan Bhagwat.
It was his very last official act in India — and it implicitly endorsed the RSS as a legitimate organization worthy of uncritical, public engagement.
In the US, civil society backlash to Keshap’s action was swift and harsh. Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton went so far as to compare the meeting to if, hypothetically, the US ambassador to Germany in 1933 had attended a Nazi rally at Nuremberg – which did not, of course, happen. In a circumstance where Nazis take over a country, diplomacy probably will require engaging with them, but appropriate engagement never includes photo-ops with them. Keshap, for whatever reason, apparently failed to grasp that.
After sustained protest in the US over his RSS visit, Keshap quietly retired from the diplomatic service a few months later.
Meanwhile, in contrast to Keshap, the RSS apparently already sees an enemy in Garcetti. Immediately after the Senate voted to confirm him, the RSS’s official media mouthpiece, The Organiser, slammed him as a “Trojan horse” and argued that he’s part of a “blatant anti-Indian ploy” — all because he promised to make human rights a “core part” of his interactions with India.
Garcetti will probably chart a very different course from Keshap, at least in the public eye, but exactly what direction will he — and his bosses in Washington — take the US-India relationship?
Only time will tell, but time is ticking away for the world’s largest democracy. India can ill afford any further democratic backsliding without slipping into outright tyranny. The expulsion from Parliament and pending imprisonment of the country’s chief opposition leader ought to make that crystal clear.
“The nature of the democratic contest has completely changed, and the reason it has changed is because of one organization called the RSS,” warned Rahul Gandhi at Chatham House. “A fundamentalist, fascist organization has basically captured pretty much all of India’s institutions.” The RSS, he said, is using democratic means to come to power so that it can subvert democracy once in power.
“Democracy in India is a global, public good,” Gandhi explained. “It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it’s important for you too. It is not just important for us.”
Yet, he lamented, “The surprising thing is that the so-called defenders of democracy, which are the US, European countries, seem to be oblivious that a huge chunk of [the] democratic model has come undone.”
What path, then, will Garcetti go down with India? The path suggested by Schumer, one in which, no matter how bad the human rights situation becomes, India will be treated as an ally to be used — or exploited, one could say — for economic gain and as a “counterweight” in geopolitical jostling with China? Or, rather, will the new ambassador — adhering to his promise to focus on human rights — understand that America’s desire for India to be a strong ally requires that the country be fully free and democratic.
As much as India and the US ought to be strong partners, that’s simply not possible while the country remains in the iron grip of a fascist movement which, experts warn, is on the verge of enacting genocide against religious minorities.
The best thing the US can do for Indians today is to set aside, for now, talk about issues like economic and security cooperation in favor of talk, first and foremost, about human rights. As Omar said at the April 2022 hearing, “When we remain silent, and the situation gets out of control in the way that it did with the Rohingyas, we all of a sudden show our interest in whatever genocide that’s taking place. But we have an opportunity now to lead and make sure that there is a deterrence in the actions that they [India] are taking as our partners.”
Human rights, said Garcetti at the December 2021 hearing, are a “cornerstone” of the US’s “shared values” with India.
Yet the time for boilerplate rhetoric about “shared values” between “the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies” has ended. The time for putting those values to the test has arrived. The citizens of India — and the world — desperately need Ambassador Garcetti to call out Modi’s dismantling of democracy.
The potential consequence of failing to take a stand now before Indian democracy actually collapses is that, in Rahul Gandhi’s words, “democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow.”
Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in the analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of “Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers” and co-author of “Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent.” He tweets at @FriedrichPieter