The sidewalks have a fresh coat, trash cleared, airspace secured, and newspapers are even reporting the canine “officers” that will be part of the elaborate US security detail when US President Barack Obama joins Indian dignitaries at the January 26 Republic Day parade as the chief guest.
Despite a rather complicated relationship linked to the Cold War, when neighbor Pakistan was the primary US ally in the region, many Indians have long admired the US and its educational and employment opportunities. Americans too have been fascinated by India, drawn by the spiritualism, the dichotomy of poverty and palaces, and in recent years, by commerce. President Obama’s second visit – and as the first US president to join the Republic Day celebrations – is viewed as a significant development in ties between the two countries.
Strengthening relations between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies, both home to vast ethnic and religious diversity, is crucial at a time of serious security and human rights challenges across the globe. Climate change will be a key agenda item during the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an issue that has rights implications for millions around the world.
Whether other important rights issues will be on the agenda is less clear.
For instance, heartened by recent economic indicators and New Delhi’s expressed commitment to development, US investor interest is picking up. However, considering India’s dense population, almost every project will have losers as well as winners, with the harm often falling on those already vulnerable and marginalized. Protecting the rights of those displaced, including meaningful community participation, and ensuring alternate and sustainable livelihoods and access to basic services, are all crucial for inclusive growth. This is not just the state’s responsibility, but that of business as well.
Civil society activists and organizations play a crucial role in protecting rights in India, though too often they are dismissed as bad faith or annoying obstacles to development. Investors need to be sympathetic to community concerns, and the state should step in to engage and find acceptable solutions. The Indian authorities’ use of sedition and other laws and unnecessary financial restrictions on civil society groups may silence dissent in the short-term, but the core problems flagged will only grow if left unresolved.
India tends to be incredibly prickly when human rights concerns are raised in high-level forums. Supporters of the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are particularly sensitive to such exchanges because of international criticism around the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state. And yet, President Obama would be doing Indians a disservice if he did not express concern about the rights of religious minorities. Although Prime Minister Modi has spoken out against communal violence, impassioned words from the US president about protecting the rights of religious minorities can reinforce that message, particularly with local officials and the police. Modi, meanwhile, should not hesitate to express concern about racial discrimination by US police, the failure to prosecute CIA torture, and unlawful global surveillance.
Democracies have a responsibility to promote universal human rights values. India and the US should not just insist on best practices at home, but for others that are enduring abuse and repression. As Obama and India’s leaders sit together and watch India celebrate its freedom during the parade, they should remember that many are still denied their liberty and their rights. Neither should shy away from talking about human rights.