Secretary of State Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper host their Indian counterparts External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh for the second US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in DC
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, December 19, 2019 – Even as protests continue to erupt in India over a controversial citizenship act deemed to be faith-specific, the US response to the new bill has been muted.
Addressing reporters at the State Department following the 2019 US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We care deeply and always will about protecting minorities, protecting religious rights everywhere”.
According to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which passed both houses of parliament earlier this month, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis who came to India by December 31, 2014, fleeing religious persecution in the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, will be granted Indian citizenship. The basic premise of the Act is that India seeks to support the persecuted. It has caused an uproar because it excludes Muslims.
At the news conference Wednesday afternoon, Pompeo stopped short of any tangible response to the new law maintaining that the US honors “Indian democracy as they have a robust debate inside of India on the issue. The United States will be consistent in the way that we respond to these issues not only in India, but all across the world”, he said with diplomatic finesse.
Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper co-hosted the 2+2 Dialogue for their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. It was the second edition of the high-level event which focused on deepening bilateral strategic and defense cooperation, exchanging perspectives on global developments, and the shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific region.
At the press conference, a reporter pointed out that Indian Muslims are protesting the new citizenship law which they believe is discriminatory and asked the Indian ministers, ‘Why make religion a factor in deciding who gets fast-tracked for citizenship and why exclude Muslims from that legislation’?
Defending the passage of the bill by the Indian parliament, Dr. Jaishankar described it as “a measure which is designed to address the needs of persecuted religious minorities from certain countries. If you look at what those countries are, and therefore what the minorities are, perhaps you would understand why certain religions were identified in terms of categorizing those who had come across”, he replied.
It was a historic day in Washington, one which saw the impeachment of President Donald Trump by the US House of Representatives. Ahead of the vote, Pompeo was queried about the impeachment proceedings and his participation which he believed was a distracting question and had nothing to do with the 2+2 Dialogue and the major issues at hand.
“It’s important to note the four of us today worked really hard on important things for the United States of America. We were intently focused on that”, he asserted. “And so, the world should know that despite all the noise, the chaos, the media asking questions that are completely unrelated to the reason that we’re here today, that the leaders of our two nations are working diligently to protect the American people, to develop a relationship that’s important strategically for the coming decades between the United States and India. And we will. We won’t let the noise and the silliness here in Washington, DC distract us from that”, he said.
America’s top diplomat responded emphatically to a question on terrorism emanating from Pakistan that targets India and Afghanistan. “We have been unambiguous in our partnership with the Indian government about terror – terror from wherever it emanates, whether it’s from inside of Pakistan or from any place else”, he said. “We are determined to protect the American people from the threat of terrorism and we are determined to work with our great democratic friends like the Indians to protect the people of India as well, and we will continue to work on it”.
Pompeo noted at the outset of his prepared remarks that “the Trump administration has prioritized closer ties with New Delhi” citing the supremely successful ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston which saw President Trump and Prime Minister Modi sharing the stage in September, the second 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, and his “productive visit to India in the summer of this year. Our common values of democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law are a great foundation for our expanding partnership. They are the basis for my hope for a new age of ambition between our two democracies”, he said.
Regarding the progress made as a result of the 2+2 Dialogue, he mentioned growing counter-terrorism cooperation, securing new agreements on space exploration and defense industrial collaboration, establishing a new exchange program for legislators of both countries, and launching initiatives to help secure internships for innovators in the two countries. He added that “a fair and reciprocal trade deal” is still in the works.
“We had a good, lively, productive exchange of views on significant regional challenges”, Pompeo said. “We value India’s perspective on security in the Indo-Pacific and frankly, all around the world”. In this regard, he mentioned “working together toward a more secure, prosperous, peaceful future for the Afghan people. We appreciate India’s contributions in Afghanistan and intend to continue consulting closely on that matter”, he said.
On Iran, he divulged that the discussion focused on “the maximum pressure campaign and why it is necessary for getting the outlaw regime in Tehran to behave like a normal nation”.
“On China, we discussed the risks that Chinese-built communication networks including 5G pose to our treasured freedoms and how China’s unfair and predatory economic activity in the Indo-Pacific presents a risk to those very freedoms”, Pompeo said.
“These are big subjects. We had good conversations. They are countries that our nations now can talk about frankly, openly and continuously because we are forging deeper, stronger bonds between our two nations”, he affirmed.
Regarding the regional situation, Minister Singh made it clear “that the extreme rhetoric and belligerent statements and incitements to anti-India violence by Pakistani leaders is not conducive to peace”.
Earlier, on Monday while addressing the Indian diaspora at the Asia Society in New York, Singh dwelt on the amended citizenship law insisting it “is not anti-Muslim”.
He reasoned, Muslims are not included in the legislation as the three neighboring countries are “theocratic” and “Islamic” states and in an Islamic state, at least those who follow the religion of Islam do not face religious persecution. Maybe, they face some other persecution, but not religious persecution because the religion of that state is Islam, he noted.
“That is why we didn’t give it to Muslims. Otherwise, we are not the ones to discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion. Our culture does not teach us to hate”, he said to much applause from the audience.
“I consider every Muslim living in India as my brother, as my family member”, Singh said noting that it is India which has given the message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family) to all of humanity.
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