The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday asked the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to “raise democracy and human rights concerns” in his discussions with the Indian government during his upcoming trip. Austin is scheduled to meet his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval during his visit to New Delhi between March 19 and March 21.

The letter from US Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s chairperson, said that the relationship between the two countries was at its strongest when based on “shared democratic values” .

“The Indian government has been trending away from those values,” it said. “I also expect that you will raise the administration’s opposition to India’s reportedly planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which threatens future US-India defense cooperation and puts India at risk of sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).”

The letter noted the Indian government’s action against farmers protesting against the new laws touted as reformatory for the agriculture sector. The committee’s chairperson also noted the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s actions against journalists and critics.

“The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India,” the letter read. “Moveover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the US human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its ‘Free’ status in its yearly global survey.”

India’s status on Freedom House’s report on political rights and civil liberties was lowered to “partly free” in the United States government-funded non-governmental organisation’s annual Freedom in the World rankings. In 2020, the organisation’s report ranked India as “free”.

The letter, written on Tuesday, added that India’s defence deal with Russia was a “matter of concern”. “It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology,” it said. “I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts.”

The US committee on foreign relations said in an effort to improve ties between the two countries, it was crucial to address present day challenges. “Getting the US-India partnership right is critical to addressing 21st century challenges, and that includes urging the Indian government to uphold democratic values and human rights,” Menendez wrote. “In meetings with Indian counterparts during your upcoming visit, I strongly encourage you to make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the U.S.-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values.”