India, US regularly consult at highest levels on democracy, human rights issues: Official

India and the United States regularly consult at the highest levels on democracy and human rights issues, a senior US State Department official said on Monday, after an official report claimed that there were significant human rights abuses in Manipur last year.

“The US and India regularly consult at the highest levels on democracy and human rights issues,” Robert S Gilchrist, senior official from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, told reporters after the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was release by Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

“We strongly encourage, urge India to uphold its human rights obligations and commitments. We also regularly meet with civil society representatives both in the US and India to hear their perspectives, and those sorts of perspectives inform the human rights report, and we encourage the government of India to consult and meet regularly with civil society organisations representing a diversity of people,” Gilchrist said.

“So, there are a number of steps. It remains a key component of our — not just our dialogue — but in terms of our engagement with India,” he asserted.

The annual report of the State Department, which is mandated by the US Congress, also mentions the raids by Indian tax authorities on the office of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the conviction and sentencing to two years of prison of Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, by a court in Gujarat.

In his opening remarks on the report, Blinken said the US is imposing visa restrictions on more than a dozen individuals who contributed to human rights abuses by helping develop and sell these tools.

“Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israel on October 7 last year and the devastating loss of civilian life in Gaza as Israel exercises its right to ensure that those attacks never happen again have also raised deeply-troubling human rights concerns,” he said.

The India section of the report said local human rights organisations, minority political parties and affected communities criticised the country’s government for the delayed action to stop violence and provide humanitarian assistance in Manipur.

The Supreme Court criticised the failure of the Centre and the Manipur government to halt the violence, and appointed a police official to investigate incidents of violence against women as well as a panel of retired senior judges to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance and rebuilding of homes and places of worship.

On September 4 last year, experts from the United Nations urged the government to step up relief efforts and provide timely action to investigate acts of violence, hold the perpetrators accountable and foster a process of reconciliation between the Meitei, Kuki and other impacted communities in the northeastern state.

According to the report of the US State Department, there were a number of press and civil society reports of representatives of political parties using disinformation tactics against civil society organisations, religious minorities, such as Sikhs and Muslims, and the political opposition, sometimes depicting them as security threats.

Referring to the tax raids on BBC offices, the report said although tax authorities described the searches as motivated by irregularities in the BBC’s tax payments and ownership structure, officials also searched and seized equipment from journalists who were not involved in the organisation’s financial processes.

“The government invoked emergency powers to ban screening of the documentary, forced media companies to remove links to the video, and detained student protesters who organised viewing parties,” the State Department alleged, referring to a BBC documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots, the screening of which was banned in India.

“This enabled the government, in their view, to selectively enforce these regulations when news organisations were critical of the government. There were multiple reports of journalists and human rights activists being investigated in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir), with at least 35 journalists reporting facing assaults, police interrogations, raids, fabricated cases and restrictions on movement since 2019,” it said.

On August 5, 2019, the Indian government abrogated the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted special powers to Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcated the erstwhile state into Union territories.

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