“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,” Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Austin.
Austin, the first ever US defence secretary to include India on his maiden foreign trip, is scheduled to meet his counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, along with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval, during his New Delhi visit from March 19 to 21.
“In meetings with Indian counterparts during your upcoming visit, I strongly encourage you to make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the US-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values,” Menendez said in his letter, a copy of which was released to the press on Wednesday.
In his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez plays a key role in influencing the country’s foreign policy and national security. Among his predecessors include President Joe Biden, who occupied this position during former president George Bush’s administration and former secretary of state John Kerry.
On India’s reported plan to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system, Menendez said that if India chooses to go forward with its purchase, that act will clearly constitute a sanctionable transaction with the Russian defence sector under provisions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA.
“I recognize that India is not a US treaty ally and has historical ties with the Soviet and Russian militaries. However, if India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defense sector under Section 231 of CAATSA,” Menendez wrote.
“It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts,” he said.
While democracy and human rights issues do not come under the domain of the Pentagon, Menendez urged Austin to raise these concerns with Indian leaders.
“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,” he wrote.
“Moreover, 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,” he said.
As the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states, “democracy is essential to meeting the challenges of our time.” “We should seek to partner with India to address challenges from China to climate change, but in doing so we cannot let our democratic values fall away. I urge you to raise the importance of democracy and human rights in your meetings with Indian officials to make clear that respect for democratic values is necessary for strong, sustainable US-India relations,” Menendez said in the letter.