Trump Administration waffles on India’s new citizenship laws

From left, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper participate in a press conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on December 18. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C.— U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, a fierce proponent of religious freedom ever since he took over as America top diplomat, was circumspect when pressed on India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CA) viewed as anti-Muslim and has spurred raging protests and violence across the country.

On Dec. 18, appearing at a press conference with India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the conclusion of the U.S.-India two-plus-two meeting, demurred when pressed for his take on CAB, instead couching his response in quintessential diplomatese in broad strokes.

“We care deeply and always will about protecting minorities, protecting religious rights everywhere.We honor Indian democracy as they have a robust debate on the issue that you raised," he said, and added, “The United States will be consistent in the way that we respond to these issues not only in India but all across the world.”

He was responding to a question by a reported who asked, “Mr. Secretary, your State Department has been a very vocal advocate of religious rights around the world. Do you think it appropriate for democracy to use faith as a determining criteria for citizenship.”

Jaishankar, also taking the question, said, "The question that you asked relating to India, if you had followed the debate on that particular legislation carefully, you would see that it is a measure which is designed to address the needs of persecuted religious minorities from certain countries.”

And, he asserted, "If you look at what those countries are and therefore what their minorities are, perhaps you understand why certain religions were identified in terms of characterizing those who had come across," Jaishankar said.

Later, a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on background declined to say whether this issue was raised during the talks between Pompeo and Jaishankar, Singh or Esper focused. He, however, referred to the earlier tweets by Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, who said “we respect India’s institutions, but are concerned about the implications of the CAB Bill.”

Brownback, a former governor of Kansas and erstwhile chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, “We hope the government will abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religion freedom.”

The senior State Dept. official, echoing these sentiments that India is a vibrant democracy and has institutions to address concerns of religious freedom and human rights, noted, "There is a debate going on in India over this very legislation.”

“It's a legislation that will be reviewed by the courts. It's being protested by political parties. It's being debated in the media. All of these institutions exist in a democratic India and so we respect that process," the official said.

Regarding the continuing tensions in Kashmir after the Modi government revoked Article 370, according special status to this Muslim-majority state and if this issue had figured in the two-plus-two talks and if the U.S. had called for specific assurances to alleviate the simmering situation, the official asserted, "This is not a relationship where we deal in ultimatums.”

When a reporter asked if the Kashmir imbroglio, the citizenship legislation—authored by Prime Minister Modi’s right hand man Amit Shah—was emblematic of an anti-Muslim agenda undertaken by the Indian government, the official shot back, "I would not. I think what we see in India is, again, a vibrant democracy".

The official continued, "There may be individual policies that are going to evoke concern. We will express our concern, we engage with the Indian Government regularly on the full spectrum of issues. But you can't ignore that these are not policies that are being done in the dark, and so we have to respect that debate, and as well as add our voice to it when appropriate.”

"On the people-to-people side, this traditionally is really a bedrock of the U.S.-India relationship," the official said, and added, "We see those bonds on a daily basis across the United States. We have 200,000 Indian students currently studying in the United States, a record high. They contribute about $7 billion to the U.S. economy.”

The official also said, “Indian-Americans make invaluable contributions to the U.S., both in uniform and in elected office, the official said.

A statement issued by the State Dept. after the talks, said, “The two sides reaffirmed the growing strategic partnership between the United States and India, which is grounded in democratic values, shared strategic objectives, strong people-to-people ties, and a common commitment to the prosperity of their citizens.”

"During the meeting, Secretary Pompeo and his counterparts reaffirmed their commitment to work together in support of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region," it added.

The statement also said that Washington and New Delhi also “agreed to deepen cooperation to address regional and global threats, combat terrorism, coordinate on disaster relief, train peacekeepers, promote transparent and sustainable infrastructure, and advance maritime security.”

The statement also acknowledged and hailed “the unprecedented levels of cooperation between the U.S. and Indian militaries, made possible through enhanced exercises such as the first-ever tri-service Tiger Triumph exercise, greater information sharing, expanded defense trade, placement of liaison officers, and defense enabling agreements, including a recently concluded agreement to promote defense collaboration between our private sectors.”

"The close U.S.-India defense partnership was on full display during Minister Singh's visit to Norfolk, VA, on December 17, during which he participated in an aircraft carrier tour and fighter aircraft demonstration at Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Air Station Oceana," it said.

Singh talking to reporters after the press conference at the State Dept. presided over by Pompeo, said he has reiterated to the top American officials about continuing cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan and also conveyed to the Trump administration “that the extreme rhetoric and belligerent statements and incitement to anti-Indian violence by Pakistani leaders is not conducive to peace.”

Pompeo, responded saying, "We understand the concerns that India has, rightful concerns that they have about terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and we assured them that we would take that into account.”

"We have been unambiguous in our partnership with the Indian government about here, terror wherever--from wherever it emanates, whether it's from inside of Pakistan or from anyplace else," he said, and added, "We are determined to protect the American people on the threat of terrorism, and we're determined to work with our great democratic friends like the Indians to protect the people of India as well. And we'll continue to work on it.”

Esper said the discussions reinforce the strategic interest shared by the two countries and help them build upon the gains from last year."As democracies, the United States and India have an abiding interest in advancing a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Our close bilateral ties are critical to the success of that mission and I am pleased to report that we continue to make substantial progress in our military relationship," he said.

"We also finalized three agreements under the defense technology and trade initiative which will enhance our ability to co-produce and co-develop critical technologies," Esper said.

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