Clinton Welcomes Indian Prime Minister

As President Clinton met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the White House today, a much smaller gathering in New York focused on the religious persecution of India’s Christian minorities by the ruling party and its sister organizations.

In a ceremonial welcome on the South Lawn, Clinton paid tribute to the Indian democratic tradition and the non-violent Independence struggle spearheaded by the Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi.

“It is not only India’s democracy but India’s manner of achieving democracy that will forever inspire America,” Clinton said. “From very different histories, India and the United States have forged a common bond, arising from our common commitment to freedom and democracy. Our challenge is to turn our common bond into common achievements.”

Vajpayee’s visit is expected to reap hefty economic gains for India. U.S. trade agencies are expected to announce agreements and loans for India today that could boost exports by up to $1 billion. The U.S. Export-Import Bank will sign trade finance agreements with Indian financial institutions that would support nearly $1 billion in American exports to India.

Hot-Potato Issues

But while both sides will try to steer clear of any controversial issues, John Dayal of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in India and the Rev. Bernard Chand, president of the International Council of Evangelical Churches, were expected to hold a briefing, hosted by Human Rights Watch, on religious persecution of India’s Christian minority.

“I am not seeking sanctions against India,” said Dayal. “I am only here to plead with the Indian community in the U.S. to put pressure on the government of India to restore India’s record for religious tolerance.”

Although the Indian Constitution upholds secularism, attacks on Christians in recent years have ranged from killing of priests and raping of nuns, to the physical destruction of Christian schools, churches and cemeteries.

But persecution of Indian Christians is just one of several human rights issues confronting the Indian government.

The Kashmir Question

India has been fighting an insurgency in Kashmir for the past 10 years, a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives, mostly Muslims, in the Kashmir valley.

During President Clinton’s visit to the subcontinent in March, a massacre of 36 Sikh men in the village of Chitisinghpura in Indian-ruled Kashmir led to a crackdown by Indian security forces who announced that five foreign mercenaries responsible for the murders were killed in an “encounter” with security forces.

However, protests from the Muslim civilian population forced the Indian government to exhume the bodies, which led to the discovery that the five “foreign mercenaries” were Muslim civilians: shepherds and traders for the most part.

Both India and Pakistan claim sovereignty over Kashmir.

Activist groups note that the incident was just one of several human rights violations by Indian security forces in the Kashmir Valley. “On paper, India’s human rights record looks good,” said Emma Bowler, a researcher on India at Amnesty International. “In practice, it’s not so good.”

Proliferation the Big Issue

Experts, however, believe human rights issues, though important, are not critical to Indo-U.S. relations. “The U.S. understands that India is fighting an insurgency in Kashmir,” said Ashley Tellis, senior policy analyst at the Rand Institute. “America would like to see more openness on India’s part, but that’s not the big issue. The big issue has been, and continues to be, nuclear proliferation.”

The differences over nuclear issues still run deep between the two countries. The U.S. has been unhappy with the nuclear tests India carried out in 1998 and its refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India is still resentful that not all the U.S. sanctions imposed after the 1998 tests have been removed.

India’s refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a series of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan led the Clinton administration to call the subcontinent “perhaps the most dangerous place in the world.”

Hefty Economic Gains

The one sphere in U.S.-India relations where there is a consensus across the political spectrum is cooperation on the economic front. “India is emerging as an Asian economic power to reckon with,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “It has a growth rate that will make it a very significant economic player in the world.”

The International Monetary Fund projects that India’s gross domestic product will outstrip those of Germany and France by 2025, making it the fourth-largest economic power in the world.

Although Washington is now eager to embrace India as an economic power, the change, many experts believe, has been slow. “The U.S. still sees India as a Third World, poverty-stricken giant,” said Victor Gobarev, an independent security analyst working with the Cato Institute. “Washington must start taking India seriously as a world power.”