US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he discussed human rights violation in India, “especially against Muslim minorities in the northeast”, with the ministers of the Narendra Modi government on Saturday, NDTV reported.
The US official, however, did not elaborate on the details of these discussions. “We have to remember that India is our partner, a partner whose partnership we value,” Austin said at a press briefing. “And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly, we feel comfortable doing that.”
While Austin did meet Prime Minister Modi on Friday, the US official said he did not “have an opportunity to talk with him” about this subject in particular, the channel reported. “I did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet on this issue,” he said.
Austin is the first top member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit India after the Democrat took oath last year. His visit follows a meeting last week between leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad.
Ahead of his visit, United States Democratic Senators Bob Menendez wrote to Austin, asking him to raise “democracy and human rights concerns” in his discussions with the Indian government. Mendez citied the crackdown on the farmers protesting against the new agricultural laws and intimidation of journalists under the Modi regime, saying these indicators had only underscored the “deteriorating situation of democracy” in India.
Asked about whether he took up the concerns flagged by Menendez with the Indian government, Austin on Saturday did not deny it, but said that “human rights and rule of law was important to the US”, and that “there are a number of things that we can and will work on together”.
“You’ve heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America,” he said. “We always lead with our values. As a democracy that’s pretty important to us. India is a democratic country and you treasure your values as well.”
At the press briefing, Austin also spoke about the military standoff in eastern Ladakh, and said the US never believed that India and China were on the threshold of war, according to NDTV. “We have never considered India and China were on the verge of a war,” he said.
Tensions had flared between India and China last year, when deadly clashes erupted along the Line of Actual Control. Twenty Indian soldiers and five Chinese ones died in the confrontation. The incident marked the most serious military conflict between the two sides in decades.
In recent years, relations between the US and China have been driven by a convergence of interests to counter China. Before Saturday’s press briefing, Austin had met Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, with the two pledging to expand their military engagement, underscoring the strengthening defence ties between two countries concerned over China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
‘No sanctions on India yet’
There has been no discussion on possible American sanctions over India’s plan to buy long-range S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, Austin said.
“India hasn’t acquired the S-400 Russian missile system yet, so the issue of sanctions were not discussed,” the US defence official added.
India’s intention to buy the S-400 missiles is a bone of contention between Washington and New Delhi. In his letter to Austin, Blinken had also asked him to raise the matter with the Indian government, saying its decision “ threatens future US-India defense cooperation”.