On Nov. 7, the first woman elected vice president of the United States, Kamala D. Harris, dominated Indian social media, newspapers and television coverage. The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother was making history and being celebrated as a national icon. Just hours before she took the stage to introduce Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a picture with the president-elect, assuring the world that his presidency will take India-U.S. relations to new heights.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president, Biden advocated a stronger relationship with India. In 2006, he said, “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.”
But Modi might complicate this goal. The Indian prime minister’s bromance with President Trump was no secret, but his blatant disregard for human rights and his authoritarian style, including his crackdown in Kashmir, is really what will make it hard to establish a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation.
When India revoked Kashmir’s special status in August 2019 — placing the Kashmir Valley under an indefinite curfew and communications blackout, and unleashing human rights abuses on those who dissented — Trump’s response was perfunctory at best. In February 2020, as Trump dined with the political elite in New Delhi during an official visit, an explosion of anti-Muslim violence, stoked by government officials, raged within miles of the venue. When questioned by journalists in a news conference the following day, Trump punted, choosing to ignore one of the worst episodes of communal carnage in India’s recent history. Modi could not have been more pleased.
In contrast, Biden published a policy paper on his campaign website calling for India to “take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir,” adding “restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy.” The paper also expressed disappointment over the controversial and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the implementation of the National Register of Citizens. “These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” it said.
Harris herself offered a strongly worded statement in 2019 on the human rights abuse in Kashmir by the Modi government. “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world,” she said. “We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a resolution on Kashmir, urging India to lift communications restrictions and preserve religious freedom. Outraged by the resolution, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was visiting the Unites States, abruptly cancelled a meeting with senior members of Congress that included Jayapal. “This only furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent at all,” the congresswoman said.
It was Harris who offered one of the most resounding statements of support for Jayapal. “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris tweeted.
These are all encouraging signs that a Biden administration might not look away when abuses such as closing the offices of Amnesty International India, incarcerating students and human rights activists and introducing the citizenship law.
A former Obama administration adviser who has been keeping a close watch on the India-U.S. relationship told me that even with Biden’s commitment to maintaining good relations with a strategically important country, he and Harris certainly will not align themselves with the demands from Hindu American groups to blindly support all of Modi’s policies.
With Trump out of the White House, defenders of democracy, pluralism and human rights in India have great expectations. The actions and statements about India from the Biden administration will be looked at with hope but also anxiety.
In a speech in 2015, after an attack on Christian minorities in India, President Barack Obama invoked Mahatma Gandhi to criticize religious intolerance and bigotry. “In past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts that would have shocked Gandhi-ji,” Obama said.
Many in India bristled at the remarks, but Obama was right to take a strong stand. Now Indians will wait to see if Biden will emulate Obama’s moral clarity and will extend his promised healing touch against division and demonization to India.