June 08, 2016

Time for a human rights dialogue with India


By:  Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

Source: The Hill

India has a proud tradition of democracy and civil disobedience, a profound strength that lies in the diversity of its people. I believe that the same can be said about the United States. But if we are being honest, these two largest democracies in the world have a way to go in perfecting our respective unions to ensure that the rights of all are protected and celebrated. I look forward to discussing this with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visits the Congress today — a conversation between friends based on mutual respect and shared values.

I spent last week in India, where I saw firsthand the remarkable progress in our relationship. In two short years, our defense and security ties are at historic levels; many people might not know that we engage in more military trainings with India than any other country in the world. Our trade ties are growing, and we achieved a noteworthy agreement in Paris at the climate talks. The people of India and the United States collaborate together in academia, on clean energy production, the sciences and business. Our governments have substantive and frequent structured dialogues on all of these issues, with a clear vision and benchmarks for success.

 
We do not, however, have a formal dialogue with India on human rights, even though the U.S. has many such dialogues with other countries. It seems to me that the two largest democracies would have a lot to share in this conversation. The U.S. has valuable experience rooted in a system of checks and balances, which gives us the ability to self-correct when government at the federal or state level oversteps its bounds. Over many years, we have also worked toward a constructive relationship between government and civil society groups. India has a truly remarkable election system where hundreds of millions of voters cast ballots and can be confident that their voice is heard. It has also lifted millions out of poverty with innovative governance programs focused on economic development. 

But often the true lessons come from the more challenging episodes that we face as open and free societies. In the United States, we have an electoral system that is broken, flooded by unrestricted money that values the speech of a rich few over the many. Minority communities across our land should never feel that they don’t belong, yet too many are still subject to abuse and lack fair access to due process. And some states continue to deny rights to members of the LGBT community. 

India faces immense challenges posed in part by being the world’s second largest country, emerging from decades of debilitating poverty. Some religious minority communities face pressure and are subject to anti-conversion laws in some states. Non-governmental organizations face restrictions from increasing government interference. And most disturbingly, India is home to 18 million victims of human trafficking, the most in the world. 

These circumstances are not acceptable.

Two years ago, Modi won the biggest election in the history of the world with a resounding mandate. His words celebrating religious tolerance, diversity and unity have inspired Indians and reinvigorated pride among the diaspora. With this mandate and commitment, he has the responsibility to ensure that his government and India’s state governments do everything possible to protect the rights of India’s most vulnerable citizens. And as a close friend, we should stand ready to support those efforts.

Last Thursday, I had the honor of visiting the Gandhi Smriti museum in Delhi, the site where the civil rights icon lost his life in 1948. Mahatma Gandhi had such a profound impact on the course of democracy in the United States, inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others fighting to build a fair and just society. As we look to take the U.S.-India partnership to greater heights, we should always heed the teachings of these great leaders. I daresay that if Gandhi were alive today, he would be struck by the progress made in his country, but would not be satisfied. I believe Dr. King would say the same about the United States. 

Perfecting our respective unions is a continuous and never-ending pursuit. We have a lot to learn from each other. Regular conversation on human rights issues, much like our dialogues on defense, climate, trade and development, strikes me as an eminently reasonable thing for strategic partners to consider and embrace.

Cardin is a United States senator from Maryland and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.