NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a veiled warning on Wednesday about Indian democracy backsliding in his first official visit to New Delhi.
Rights groups say civil liberties and the space for dissent are under increasing attack in the world’s biggest democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Antony Blinken told a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar that the US and India “take seriously our responsibility to deliver freedom, equality and opportunity to all of our people”. But he added “we know that we must constantly do more on these fronts, and neither of us has achieved the ideals that we set for ourselves”.
Democracies should “always seek to strengthen our democratic institutions, expand access to justice and opportunity, stand up forcefully for fundamental freedoms”, Blinken said. Under Modi, India has made growing use of anti-terrorism legislation and “sedition” laws to arrest campaigners, journalists, students and others.
The Modi administration has also brought in legislation that detractors say discriminates against India’s 170-million-strong Muslim minority.
The government denies cracking down on criticism and says people of all religions have equal rights.
Behind closed doors, Indian officials were believed to have expressed alarm over Taliban gains in Afghanistan and pressed Blinken for more support in the border standoff with China.
India-US relations have historically been prickly, but China’s growing assertiveness has pushed them closer, particularly since deadly clashes last year on the disputed Indo-Chinese Himalayan frontier.
But according to Brahma Chellaney, strategic affairs expert at India’s Centre for Policy Research, US backing has “slipped a notch” since Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump as president in January.
“India is locked in a military standoff with China, but unlike top Trump administration officials who publicly condemned China’s aggression and backed India, no one in Team Biden has so far lent open support to India,” Chellaney said.
President Biden has further riled New Delhi with Washington’s “rushed and poorly planned exit from Afghanistan”, Chellaney added.
Delhi is worried that a possible takeover by the Taliban will turn the country into a base for militants to attack India.
India, a firm backer of the Afghan government with billions of dollars in development aid, recently evacuated 50 staff from its Kandahar consulate due to the worsening security situation.
Antony Blinken told the news conference that despite withdrawing troops, the United States “remains very engaged” in support of the beleaguered Afghan government, providing security support and other assistance.
“There has to be a peaceful resolution which requires the Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table,” Blinken added.