During his state visit to India last week, President Trump focused on promoting our increasingly important strategic relationship with Delhi. Working with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom he shares a populist brand of politics, social media savvy, and a penchant for raucous rallies, Trump rightly emphasized strengthening military ties and a trade and investment partnership that has doubled in recent years.
This new US reliance on India, aimed, in part, at limiting China’s ambitions in the region, enjoys rare bipartisan support at home. It has been a high priority of recent presidents and congressional leaders of both parties. It was also made possible by the shared values between the world’s two strongest democracies — the United States and India — to democracy, the rule of law, and human and religious rights.
Trump’s visit was big news in India but was overshadowed by violent and bloody clashes in Delhi between Hindus and Muslims that left more than 45 dead, primarily Muslims. Many blamed the ruling BJP party’s strident Hindu Nationalist agenda that has made Muslims feel like second-class citizens in their own country. When Trump praised Modi, in the middle of the violence, for upholding religious freedom, he disappointed millions of Indians and weakened the foundation of what has made this two-decade rise in the US-India relationship possible — our shared values.
Modi surprised his country and allies last August when he downgraded Kashmir, previously the only Muslim-majority state in India, to a union territory governed by Delhi. Hundreds of prominent Muslim Kashmiri politicians, business, and social leaders have since been arrested. Internet, cable, and phone connections have been severed to the outside world. A massive curfew is still in place. Kashmir’s political future is in limbo. India’s top military commander suggested recently that recalcitrant Kashmiris be sent to “deradicalization camps,” a gross repudiation of the secular and tolerant values that prevailed in India before Modi came to power.
Then, in December, Modi’s government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, offering fast-track citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians but not to members of India’s 200 million Muslim population, second in size globally only to Indonesia. This law made religious identity central to decisions about citizenship, violating, critics say, the principle of equal treatment in India’s constitution. This has enraged a Muslim community previously fairly well integrated into powerful positions in Indian politics and business.
The Modi government has also dangled the specter of a National Register of Citizens under which Indians will be required to prove their heritage in order to be recognized as citizens. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have expressed concerns this would effectively marginalize many Indian Muslims. In a pilot program in the Indian state of Assam, the government’s registry excludes 1.9 million residents, including many with ancestral roots in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. While Hindus are fast-tracked for citizenship, many Muslims have been left stateless, detained, and awaiting decisions from backlogged tribunal courts.
These measures could risk India’s democratic future as well as the delicate relationship between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim populations. They are also testing its friendship with the United States and other democratic countries around the world.
Trump is facing a dilemma not uncommon in the post-World War II foreign policy of the United States. Like many of his Oval Office predecessors, he must balance the critical military and economic ties the United States is building with a close friend against the repudiation by the Modi government of the very principles that are at the foundation of the friendship itself.
We do not pretend this is an easy choice. The United States has a major stake in India’s future as a military power in the expansive Indo-Pacific. Our navies and air forces work closely together, along with the forces of Japan and Australia, to counter China’s growing military influence in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
In the economic realm, India’s importance to the United States is growing quickly with substantial American investment into India’s expanding economy, in particular its advanced technology sector. India is also a pipeline for talent into the US economy. Nearly 20 percent of foreign students studying in the United States are Indian. Some of the largest US tech companies are led by Indians, including Google and Microsoft.
The United States must also maintain an effective working relationship with India on climate change, coronavirus, crime and narcotics cartels, and the many other transnational challenges that will be a hallmark of the coming decades.
Trump is skating on very thin ice, however, in giving Modi a pass on his democratic shortcomings. The smarter and wiser course is to be clear with Modi that his deviations from the fundamentals of democratic rule risk his standing internationally.
Modi and his supporters, of course, will likely retort that we all live in glass houses. They would not be wrong in that assessment. As the Trump administration has undermined our democratic values at home through policies such as the Muslim travel ban, the United States has lost considerable credibility in championing those values abroad. The situation in India creates urgency, not only for Trump to lead more effectively on the international stage but to revisit his own domestic policies.
Trump is right to continue to build our security and economic ties with Delhi. This partnership can only continue to flourish, however, if our shared values remain intact — on both sides of the relationship.
Aditi Kumar is the executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Nicholas Burns is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.