President Trump did not challenge India over religious freedom. Will Biden do the same?
(Open Doors) – India, the world’s largest democracy, is rapidly becoming a world leader in religious persecution.
The landslide victory in 2014 of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial Hindu nationalist, sparked a wave of human rights violations. Under Modi, Hindu extremists were encouraged to lead a 300% increase in violent attacks against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities. Oppressive anti-conversion laws are frequently used to harass and expel religious minorities wherever local authorities are willing to do so.
Over the past four years, the organization I lead, Open Doors USA, has repeatedly called on the Trump administration to hold India accountable for this mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities. While Trump’s White House heeded our calls, it ultimately did not act.
During the election campaign, candidate Joe Biden repeatedly promised to fight to protect religious freedom wherever it was threatened. When it comes to India, however, President Joe Biden appears to have taken a similar approach to that of his predecessor. With relatively little effort, the current administration could stop the rise of anti-religious authoritarianism among India’s 1.25 billion citizens.
When President Trump had the power to influence Modi’s next move, he instead sought personal favor. Their defense deal, intended to counter China, made India an ally despite its leaders’ continued disregard for constitutional limits. In this, President Trump has targeted a proven danger to human rights by empowering a new danger.
Since Biden took office, the situation has only gotten worse. The Indian government, which has long blamed Muslim citizens for its COVID-19 outbreak, recently tolerated large gatherings of Hindu pilgrims and political loyalists. And there is nothing democratic about the Indian government’s censorship of social media posts criticizing its response to the pandemic. This blatant disregard for free speech calls into question the true nature of Indian “democracy”.
American leadership occupies a unique position among world leaders to influence India, which is why advocates of religious freedom in the United States are often bewildered and frustrated by the inaction and ineptitude of our political leaders.
The Biden administration pledged emergency aid to help India fight the outbreak on April 26, which is commendable. But the offer of assistance came without any guarantee of equitable distribution among Indian citizens. Modi’s government has exploited this loophole and more than 80,000 Indian families have already been excluded from state-sponsored relief solely because of their religious identity.
The systematic suppression of religious freedom in India continues unabated, but the Biden administration seems ironic, if not indifferent.
Earlier this year, India was ranked No.10 on the 2021 World Watch List, a comprehensive ranking of conditions for religious freedom around the world published by Open Doors USA. Last month, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be blacklisted for “a drastic downward shift as religious minorities are increasingly under attack.” Biden’s State Department completely ignored the commission’s recommendation.
Serious threats to religious freedom require a committed and vigilant eye, which is why Biden must immediately appoint a Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.
When Rabbi David Saperstein was appointed to the post in 2014, then Vice President Biden was the administration official chosen to call and congratulate him first. Today, President Biden appears to underestimate the importance of this much-needed post, refusing to name a replacement. Filling this post would be an important first step in holding offenders like India to account.
Additionally, the Biden administration may refuse aid if Indian government officials fail to swiftly tackle religious discrimination in the distribution of COVID-19 relief. American money should never be used to stifle the freedom our nation cherishes.
The Indian constitution offers democratic protections to its citizens. The Biden administration can act by simply asking Prime Minister Modi to honor those commitments. We can, for example, negotiate the repeal or reform of anti-conversion laws in order to maintain India’s strong position in the global economy. And President Biden can demand criminal consequences for those who commit acts of violence on the basis of caste, religion, gender, national origin or other protected class.
Allowing India to remain unmoved about human rights violations, and even reward them with financial aid in the meantime, is not just bad policy. It is immoral. President Biden is expected to deliver on his campaign promises by prioritizing religious freedom and the protection of human rights in trade, aid and diplomatic negotiations – starting with the world’s largest democracy.
(David Curry is President and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @Open doors.)
(For over 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians in the world. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.)