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US Senators Raise Concerns About Human Rights, Business Issues With India

WASHINGTON – US senators cutting across party lines reaffirmed their support for ties with India on Tuesday but raised concerns about the state of human rights in the country, targeting of NGOs, shrinking civil society space due to the rise of “Hindu nationalism” and unequal treatment of foreign businesses.

They asked Kenneth Ian Juster, the US ambassador-designate to India, for his views on these issues at a hearing to process his nomination, and his commitment to pursuing them if confirmed. Juster was on board with them on most issues, but so was the Indian government and civil society, he reminded them.

“India has a great tradition of tolerance,” he said to a question on religious tolerance in India, especially with regard to minorities, including Sikhs. “It’s a multi-religious country and it has the values that we have in that area. Nonetheless there are instances that occur time to time…that are troubling.”

If confirmed, Juster said, he would work with the “Indians on understanding better in seeking ways to improve that situation”.

Senate foreign affairs committee chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, led the charge in his opening remarks after approvingly prefacing the growing ties. He expressed frustration over the civil nuclear deal, “slow pace of reforms”, “barriers to Indian market”, “strict localisation” and the “unpredictable” atmosphere for foreign investment.

“Additionally,” Corker said, “space for civil society was shrinking as Hindu nationalism rises and international NGOs face undue scrutiny.” He went on to speak of human trafficking and bonded labour, about which he has been particularly critical.

Ben Cardin, the ranking member, a Democrat, raised similar concerns after stating that bilateral relations have improved. But there are “challenges”, he said and listed them out while agreeing with Corker — “commerce issues” (market access and reforms), “trafficking”, and “other human rights challenges”.

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Juster, an experienced India hand, agreed with the issues raised by the senators — including about poultry and India’s continued refusal to allow American companies to sell chicken despite a WTO ruling — and assured them he would work with them.

If confirmed, which is likely given the breezy nomination hearing he had, Juster will fill a position that has been vacant for months after the exit of Richard Verma, an Indian American appointed by former president Barack Obama.

“India and the US share common values and a commitment to democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law,” Juster said in prepared remarks for his testimony. “The (Trump) administration views India as a leading power and a true friend, whose influence internationally is important and growing.”

He added: “The administration will build on the excellent meeting that President Trump and Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi had in June of this year in seeking to deepen our partnership for the benefit of the people of both countries, and in the interest of shaping a freer, more secure, and more prosperous world.”

Juster was referring to the first meeting between Modi and Trump.

He also spoke of his vast experience working with India and related issues as a government official in the Bush administration and in the private sector. He told the senators his interest in India was sparked by pictures he saw of the country taken by his father, an architect and a photographer, and his mother during their visit. He was 11 then.

“I still have vivid memories of the many photographs he took there. That trip sparked my interest in this vast and diverse country and its people.”

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