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It’s Time to Condition Aid to India

The country’s military violates human rights with impunity—and gets a pass in Washington.

By , the policy director at Hindus for Human Rights.
Graduates from the Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regiment take part in a parade in Srinagar on Dec. 8, 2018.
Graduates from the Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regiment take part in a parade in Srinagar on Dec. 8, 2018.
Graduates from the Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regiment take part in a parade in Srinagar on Dec. 8, 2018. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

In late June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was warmly welcomed into the privileged club of the G-7, attending the group’s annual summit as a guest alongside leaders from Argentina, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, and Ukraine. In a horrific split screen, Modi and his colleagues affirmed their commitment to democracy and free speech just as Indian police had arrested Teesta Setalvad, a human rights defender and longtime Modi critic, and R.B. Sreekumar, the former director-general of police in Gujarat state, on charges of criminal conspiracy and forgery.

The arrests came less than 24 hours after the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a 2013 legal petition by Setalvad that sought to bring criminal charges against Modi, who had been chief minister of Gujarat during 2002 pogroms that saw Hindu mobs terrorize Muslims and that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Setalvad’s and Sreekumar’s arrests were only the latest evidence that, 75 years since independence, India’s government institutions are actively undermining Indians’ human rights. But while the uptick in Hindu nationalism under Modi has not escaped attention abroad, another component of India’s democratic backsliding has flown under the radar. Namely, its military’s abuses of human rights. As the United States seeks a deeper security and economic relationship with India, it must ensure that U.S. tax dollars are not used by the Indian government, particularly by the Indian military, to further violate Indians’ human rights.

In late June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was warmly welcomed into the privileged club of the G-7, attending the group’s annual summit as a guest alongside leaders from Argentina, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, and Ukraine. In a horrific split screen, Modi and his colleagues affirmed their commitment to democracy and free speech just as Indian police had arrested Teesta Setalvad, a human rights defender and longtime Modi critic, and R.B. Sreekumar, the former director-general of police in Gujarat state, on charges of criminal conspiracy and forgery.

The arrests came less than 24 hours after the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a 2013 legal petition by Setalvad that sought to bring criminal charges against Modi, who had been chief minister of Gujarat during 2002 pogroms that saw Hindu mobs terrorize Muslims and that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Setalvad’s and Sreekumar’s arrests were only the latest evidence that, 75 years since independence, India’s government institutions are actively undermining Indians’ human rights. But while the uptick in Hindu nationalism under Modi has not escaped attention abroad, another component of India’s democratic backsliding has flown under the radar. Namely, its military’s abuses of human rights. As the United States seeks a deeper security and economic relationship with India, it must ensure that U.S. tax dollars are not used by the Indian government, particularly by the Indian military, to further violate Indians’ human rights.

In 2021, the U.S. State Department chronicled multiple incidents of human rights violations by Indian security forces, including torture, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Kashmir has long witnessed human rights abuses by the Indian military. Since 1990, hundreds of families in the region have said their loved ones have been forcibly disappeared. In May, reports emerged that the Indian Army had led false-flag operations to instigate violence during protests in Kashmir and in turn justify a military response. In November 2021, one of these military crackdowns led to two civilian deaths.

The Indian Army is protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has given the Indian military impunity and cover to violate the human rights of civilians in what it calls “disturbed areas.” While the Indian government introduced a special AFSPA for Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, the original act has been in effect since 1958 in parts of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. Under AFSPA, for example, Indian security forces killed 15 civilians in Nagaland while trying to repress popular unrest in the state in December 2021. The U.N. Human Rights Council and Human Rights Watch have both previously recommended that the Indian government repeal AFSPA.

The Nagaland incident was part of a long history of so-called fake encounters by security forces in northeastern India and Kashmir, where the Indian military creates a pretense for deadly encounters or extrajudicial killings. Since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, fake encounters have become a regular part of the Army’s administration of the region. In 2020, the Army said it would investigate the deaths of three individuals, which local politicians and Human Rights Watch said were extrajudicial killings and to which the Army later admitted. In early 2021, the Indian Army killed another three individuals in an alleged staged gunfight. By late 2021, hundreds of people, including civilians, had been killed by Indian security forces in Kashmir and buried in unmarked graves.

The Indian military should be held to the same standards to which the United States holds its other security partners.

When other countries’ militaries commit such human rights violations, they are rightfully subject to U.S. security aid restrictions and conditionalities through measures such as the Leahy Law. In 2019, when U.S. lawmakers learned that Cameroonian forces tortured Anglophone dissidents using anti-terrorism laws, the United States restricted security aid to Cameroon. In 2021, when Colombian forces killed protesters during popular demonstrations, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to ban military aid to the squadron responsible for the civilian deaths. And that same year, Sen. Bob Menendez introduced amendments to block U.S. funds from supporting Turkey’s drone program because of a concern that the Azerbaijani government used Turkish drones in its 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Congress also created bipartisan pressure—over the objections of former President Donald Trump—to block weapon sales to Saudi Arabia due to its involvement in the war in Yemen, now in its eighth year.

This year, the House strengthened human rights when it passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and approved human rights conditions on security aid to Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Egypt. Rep. Jim McGovern introduced an amendment to ban arm sales to governments guilty of genocide or violating international humanitarian law. Rep. Sara Jacobs introduced an amendment to fortify the Leahy Law by requiring the U.S. government to also apply the law to security partners that receive security aid for counterterrorism and irregular warfare.

Unfortunately, the NDAA’s human rights conditions did not extend to India. Instead, Rep. Ro Khanna introduced an amendment to increase security aid to India. His reasoning was that this would help India fortify its contested border with China, where the Chinese government has used incursions into India for domestic political gain. Khanna asserted that, with this amendment, “the oldest democracy in the world must stand with the largest democracy [in the] world to send an unequivocal signal that sovereignty and international law must be respected.”

Khanna’s amendment displays a selective understanding of the Indian political situation. Given the high number of civilian deaths caused by the military in places such as northeastern India, where the country borders China, the amendment sets a dangerous precedent: Congress will give the Indian military approval to beef up its security presence in the places where it kills civilians.

At the same time, the United States and India have deepened their security relationship through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, and bilateral security cooperation. India is considered a “major defense partner” of the United States and has received billions of dollars in U.S. security aid. Congress also approved a waiver for sanctions against India as it continues to buy Russian weapons and Russian oil. As the Indian government commits demonstrable human rights violations—and counteracts the U.S. response to Russia’s war in Ukraine—the United States is bending over backward to enhance U.S.-India ties.

To be clear, India should have the resources it needs to defend its borders from incursions by other governments. And the United States and India should maintain a strong relationship based on shared democratic values. But U.S. lawmakers can’t continue to turn a blind eye to India’s democratic backsliding, nor should they issue a blank check to a government that is violating its citizens’ human rights. The Indian military should be held to the same standards to which the United States holds its other security partners.

In recent months, U.S. officials have expressed consternation about India’s alignment with Russia, and hard-right media outlets in India have encouraged the Indian government to align fully with Russia and against the United States. Conditions on U.S. security aid will certainly not be welcomed by the Indian military and may only bolster that call. However, while the other Quad members—Australia, Japan, and the United States—have alternative options for security cooperation against China, India needs the Quad to prevent Chinese incursions into northeastern India and protect its own interests in South Asia, where every other country has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India’s participation in the Quad is in its own national security interest, and U.S. aid conditions won’t alter this.

The House-passed NDAA was a missed opportunity for U.S. lawmakers to ensure that the Indian military does not commit further human rights violations. However, the Senate still has an opportunity to act. The Senate NDAA has passed committee, and the entire chamber will likely vote on the bill after the August recess. During this month, senators have a chance to introduce amendments that raise human rights concerns about India’s military. In the past, some senators have raised concerns about human rights and religious freedom in India. In March, Sen. Chris Van Hollen even asked the State Department about sanctioning India over its purchase of Russian weapons. Still, it is unlikely that senators will condition aid to India this time around, given that many seem focused on India’s role as a security partner against China. They must realize, though, that India’s deteriorating human rights record makes it a less reliable partner.

Congress’s appropriations powers are perhaps its most powerful expression of U.S. values. If the United States really believes in human rights and democracy, Congress will condition security aid to India.

Ria Chakrabarty is the policy director at Hindus for Human Rights, where she leads the organization’s advocacy efforts with government actors. Her writing has appeared in South Asian Voices and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Journal of Global Affairs.

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