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11/09/2023 India (International Christian Concern) –  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are arriving in India Friday for a diplomatic dialogue focused on defense cooperation. The U.S. sees India as a key regional security partner and counterweight to China. 

The meeting comes amid a serious diplomatic spat between India and Canada, America’s neighbor to the north and a close ally, over the assassination of a prominent Sikh activist, in Canada, allegedly at the hands of Indian government agents. The Sikh community is a religious minority with roots in northern India. 

Though the details of the plot are not fully known to the public, U.S. intelligence services have determined with a high degree of confidence that India was responsible for the killing. 

India denies the allegation but seems to have handled the situation in a way designed to create maximum publicity around the topic—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is speculated to have rebuffed efforts by Justin Trudeau to handle the situation quietly, as would be the norm, at an in-person meeting just days before Trudeau made the allegations public. 

If true, Modi may be leveraging the assassination to whip up his core voter base of radical Hindu nationalists ahead of next year’s elections. 

The U.S. urged India in September to cooperate fully with the Canadian government’s investigation of the assassination, but little seems to have come of the call, with the countries continuing to diminish their diplomatic presence in the other country. 

Modi’s time in office has seen a significant decline in freedom in India. In Washington, D.C. in June for an official state visit, Modi took two questions from reporters at a press conference, including one from the Wall Street Journal on human rights. 

“Democracy is in our DNA,” said Modi in response. “We have always proved that democracy can deliver, and when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, or gender. There is absolutely no space for discrimination [in India]…this is our foundational principle.” 

Under a decades-old law, Christian and Muslim Indians from low-caste backgrounds are barred from receiving government benefits otherwise available to them if they were Hindus. This presents a significant barrier to conversion, as many individuals depend on these benefits for their survival. In June’s press conference, Modi denied this fact. “The benefits provided by the government are accessible to all,” he claimed, “those benefits are available to everybody. In India’s democratic values, there is absolutely no discrimination on the basis of caste or creed.” 

At an event just a few weeks earlier, in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke alongside Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain to highlight religious persecution in India and around the world. The event also served as a launch for the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom, a report widely considered among the most authoritative sources on the topic of religious persecution. 

Prior to the event, a senior State Department official briefed reporters via conference call. Among other points, the official highlighted the persecution of religious minorities in India, including “lynching and other hate-fueled violence, attacks on houses of worship and home demolitions, and in some cases impunity and even clemency for those who’ve engaged in attacks on religious minorities.” Local Indian authorities so consistently fail to bring persecutors to justice that many attackers film their attacks, even livestreaming them on social media. 

The U.S. has engaged with the Indian government on the issue of persecution for years. In September 2022, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia met with Indian government officials “to encourage positive messaging on pluralism and tolerance and respecting human rights, including religious freedom,” according to the 2022 IRF report. Other officials met with civil society leaders and members of persecuted religious minorities to understand their situation more thoroughly. 

ICC recently published a report giving an overview of the deteriorating state of religious freedom in India. Unchecked: The Rise of Hindu Nationalism, Legal Repression, and Mob Violence in the World’s Largest Democracy is available on the ICC website. 

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