As the Biden administration recovers from its predecessor’s diplomatic mess, and positions itself as a counterbalance (of sorts) to the Chinese government’s increasing economic and technological power, one partner looks to be a key one: India. While it has been over a year since the Indian and U.S. heads of state have met face-to-face, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recently concluded trip affirmed the relationship’s importance. “We will deepen our partnership with India,” the administration’s interim national security strategic guidance reads. And this appears especially true on technology issues.
Forging international coalitions to combat Beijing’s technological influence — censorship and surveillance included — is an overarching goal of the Biden administration. Alongside other allies and friends worldwide, India could be an important partner in that fight. Hence why the White House may be tempted to give India-U.S. tech positioning against China decisive priority over addressing human rights issues in India. Yet doing so would be a serious mistake.
The second most populous country in the world, home to a large and lucrative domestic market, and the site of a rapidly growing technology sector, India is a very attractive partner for the United States on a range of internet policy issues. In an ideal world, rightfully so. U.S. and Indian policymakers cooperating on combatting digitally infused authoritarianism, especially vis-à-vis Beijing’s growing technological influence, could produce serious movement on tech policy. So could, in this ideal scenario, work on such issues as norms for artificial intelligence development or legislative frameworks for data privacy.
But the Biden administration must also confront the digital repression now rampant in India: more internet shutdowns than any country on earth in 2018 and again in 2019; a privacy bill under legislative consideration with massive carve-outs for government surveillance; growing attacks, by Modi and the BJP, on the press, the courts, the academy, and human rights writ large that are inextricably linked with crackdowns in the digital sphere. The increasing inseparability of offline and online rights abuses is manifestly clear in India.
When the Modi administration stripped Kashmir of its special status, kicking off a months-long repression filled with rigid media control and police brutality, it simultaneously strangled the internet in the region. When thousands of citizens moved to the streets in protest of an Islamophobic citizenship bill over a year ago — or, more recently, as farmers protested national regulatory moves on agriculture — the state’s response was to sever internet connectivity while unleashing state violence, hindering at once protesters’ ability to communicate and the international community’s ability to look in. Early on in the global COVID-19 outbreak, New Delhi tried to use the Supreme Court to censor media coverage of the pandemic. Recent Modi government moves to censor tweets and Facebook posts on the country’s disastrous, destructive reaction to COVID-19 — with deaths now skyrocketing — are but another example. All of these digital events, from internet shutdowns to maneuvers that would expand state surveillance, reflect broader political trends. India’s press freedom rankings have declined under Modi; references to an ethnonationalist government are increasing, as a direct product of the government’s increasingly repressive behavior.
Given the urgency the United States places on building international coalitions to counter Beijing, there is particular risk that technology and defense arguments prevail in Washington over human rights considerations. Getting the Indian government’s cooperation on China tech issues, some may well argue, is important enough to not strongly press these domestic human rights problems.
Doing so would be a mistake. Truly making human rights a pillar of U.S.foreign policy — and recovering credibility lost by the last White House — means not casting it aside the moment a claim of “strategic” priority arrives. Washington has many tools at its disposal to demonstrate that the likes of internet blackouts and court-pushed censorship orders are unacceptable, and it should push the Modi government to change its behavior by leveraging that toolbox.
Yet there is also a self-interested reason for the United States to center human rights in the India-U.S. tech relationship. In claiming to combat modern repression both offline and online, the Biden administration would lose moral ground if combating those behaviors in theory means disregarding rights violations in practice. For fighting the online-offline fusion of modern repression necessitates fighting it everywhere it stands, and that includes in India.