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  • Paramjit Singh

Under Secretary Zeya's India Visit: Disappointing Vagueness and Missed Opportunities

July 18th, Chandigarh, India: On July 7, the US Department of State announced that Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, would be traveling to India and Bangladesh from July 8 to July 14, 2023.

The State Department's media note stated, "During her visit to both countries, Under Secretary Zeya will engage with civil society organizations to discuss freedom of expression and association, as well as the inclusion of women, girls, persons with disabilities, and vulnerable groups, including marginalized religious and ethnic minorities. For more information, follow @UnderSecStateJ."

As a Sikh myself, I decided to follow @UnderSecStateJ for additional information.

When I checked her Twitter handle during the period of July 8 to July 14, all I found were vague posts.

For example, there was a photo of her with Ambassador Eric Garcetti on July 10. It is understandable for an Under Secretary to share pictures with diplomatic colleagues during their visit to the host country.

Moving on, on the same day, she posted another picture with a smiling team from the Secretary's Diversity and Inclusion Office. The accompanying tweet was filled with emojis.

Under Secretary Zeya then announced her meeting with India's Foreign Secretary on the same day. The content of that tweet from July 10 can be seen in the provided link:

She also met another Indian diplomat in the same building of the Indian External Affairs Ministry and tweeted about it, describing it as a "fruitful convo." The tweet can be accessed through the provided link:

On July 11, 2023, Under Secretary Zeya tweeted about her meeting with Indian civic leaders. The content can be found here:

The following day, she posted random pictures of Gandhi and elephant statues, meals, and a photo with the host Ambassador. She concluded her visit by thanking the Indian government partners, expressing hopes for celebrating the "strong official and cultural ties" between the two countries.

So far, I found no substantial or concrete information from @UnderSecStateJ, which the Department of State recommended following for updates on Under Secretary Zeya's visit to India.

I wondered, "Which Indian civic leaders did she meet on July 11?" and "How representative was the group of Indian civic leaders who sat down with Under Secretary Zeya?" I also questioned if there was any Sikh representation, considering that Sikhs are a visible yet small minority labelled by proponents of Hindu ultra-majoritarianism as rogue separatists and even terrorists, not just within India but also in countries like the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.

If she did meet Sikh representatives, I could only hope that the local Indian staff at the US embassy didn't lead her to the usual few turban-wearing individuals who collaborate with the Hindu nationalist BJP and undermine the broader Sikh dissent against the ultra-majoritarian policies of the current Indian government.

However, all these thoughts were mere speculations because there was no substantial information shared on her Twitter handle.

Nevertheless, when I scrolled further up, I found a tweet about her interview with The Hindustan Times while she was in Dhaka.

I was unsure if it was a spontaneous or staged interview, as the latter is notorious in Indian media tradition, where questions are emailed and answers are mailed back to reporters.

The story claimed that the interview took place on July 11, a day before Under Secretary Zeya flew to Dhaka.

Nonetheless, the substance of the reported interview intrigued me more than her tweets.

Here is a Q&A from The Hindustan Times story:

“Reporter: How much of an issue is human rights right now in India-US relations and how can the two sides work together on this?

“Under Secretary Zeya: I think we saw clearly during the Prime Minister’s historic state visit, a reaffirmation from the US side, from the Indian side of shared values, freedom, democracy, diversity, inclusion, pluralism and equal opportunities for all citizens. We see these values underpinning, standing at the core of an increasingly close but ambitious partnership. And as close partners and friends, we regularly exchange views in a straightforward and respectful way about democracy and human rights and it’s one aspect of the relationship. But also note in my role as Under Secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, I have a global remit where President Biden and Secretary [of State] Blinken have clearly articulated and exhorted US diplomats to keep democracy and human rights at the center of US foreign policy. But obviously, our relationship with India is multidimensional, as we noted in the joint statement, it really touches upon every aspect of the human endeavour from the sea to the stars. So, this is not by any means, the sole issue in the relationship, but rather an underpinning and I think a motivation.”

What kind of “underpinning” is that?

When I read this passage repeatedly, I couldn't help but get the impression that her visit to India was not aimed at assessing the situation and condition of minorities and other disadvantaged communities, but rather to appease a large market and an illusory counterweight to China in Asia.

This could be in response to the offense caused by a single question on democracy during the White House news conference on June 22.

The question, asked by Sabrina Siddiqui to Prime Minister Modi alongside President Biden, was as follows: “As you stand here in the East Room of the White House, where so many world leaders have made commitments to protecting democracy, what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?”

It goes without saying that Hindu nationalists don't take such questioning of their Supreme Leader lightly. Their massive army of trolls attacked the questioner head-on, more so because the question was raised on the White House floor.

In her interview on Indian soil, Under Secretary Zeya seemed to be assuaging the ruffled nerves of the Hindu nationalist BJP government.

There is no need to read between the lines of her answer but to focus on the lines themselves in order to understand how she struggled to "clarify" that human rights and democracy do not solely define India-US relations.

“But obviously, our relationship with India is multidimensional, as we noted in the joint statement, it really touches upon every aspect of the human endeavor from the sea to the stars,” she said in her interview. “So, this is not by any means, the sole issue in the relationship, but rather an underpinning and I think a motivation.”

Under Secretary Zeya has left countless diverse communities disappointed, from India's west to the northeast and from the north to the south. She has declared in no uncertain terms that democracy and human rights hold a secondary or even tertiary place, or rather a superficial one, in America's larger geopolitical and market-driven agenda.

At a time when human rights, religious rights, and even civil rights are under severe threat from the ruling Hindu nationalists in the so-called world's largest democracy, she could have done a better job by calling a spade a spade.

In the same interview, she, after all, did openly express concerns about China's suppression at home and its efforts to export its model externally.

However, what about India under the BJP rule exporting its model of hatred against Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and low-caste Indian communities living abroad? What about the Indian administration forcing countries like Canada, Australia, the UK and the US to crack down on Sikhs expressing their legitimate right to dissent under international law? How on earth can the BJP government choose to brazenly violate human rights at home and also tell the world outside to follow the same authoritarian policy against dissenting non-Hindu groups of Indian descent?

Certainly, Under Secretary Zeya could have achieved something more substantial if she had been transparent with the current Indian government during her important visit to New Delhi.

The only thing tempting on her Twitter feed was a picture of a whole roasted fish on the meal table the day she left for Dhaka.

Apart from that, her diplomatic fishing expedition to India under the BJP government seemed to have yielded little to the advantage of the disadvantaged communities.


Paramjit Singh is a free lance writer, avid reader, content creator and travels all over asia. Currently lives in Virginia. His twitter handle is- @ParamjeetT42915


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