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US envoy: 'Human rights, religious freedom are issues we are going to raise'

By Aziz Haniffa/
March 30, 2015 14:24 IST
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'We are encouraged by what the prime minister said recently on these issues... We will keep a close eye on these issues. They are very important and as are other elements of our human rights and religious freedom.'

'So, absolutely, we'll keep a focus on them.'

US Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma speaks to Aziz Haniffa/ in an EXCLUSIVE interview.

Richard Rahul Verma, the first Indian American to be appointed US Ambassador to India, hit the ground running. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited India soon after Verma took over, and days later, President Barack Obama made a historic second visit, this time as chief guest on Republic Day.

In the second part of his exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/ in Washington, DC, Ambassador Verma looks at his three months in office and discusses regional developments vis-a-vis Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran; the concern about religious intolerance and commonalities that bind India and the United States...

Barack Obama and Narendra Modi

Image: US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, January 25, 2015. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters


You remarked at the Vivekananda Foundation that the President told you just before he departed India, that now the hard work will truly begin as we seek to implement this ambitious agenda and take US-India relations to a new level of collaboration.

How have you gone about doing this hard work and what have been your priorities?

It is a really good question. Let me go back to when the prime minister visited in September. Since that time, we've launched or reinvigorated 30 separate initiatives or dialogues.

Since President Obama's visit to New Delhi in January, we have begun over 70 lines of work streams that came up out of that visit.

What we've done is prioritise what issues are of the greatest importance and of the most urgent in terms of time sensitivity.

We've created seven working groups at the embassy, liaising with ministry of external affairs colleagues and with our Washington colleagues as well to drive implementation on all those fronts.

We have working groups on climate and clean energy, on strategic issues, on defence issues, on economics and trade and so forth and so on.

I really do think it is important to show progress and to show demonstrable progress to both American and Indian observers, who want to know whether we are going to follow through on the commitments that were made.

I can tell you on that, it is our pledge and promise to deliver on what the two heads of State came together and set forth both in September and January, and we already have good progress in many different areas.

I believe you intend visiting as many states and meeting chief ministers as part of that agenda.

In the first nine weeks I took nine trips around the country, in addition to all these high level visits. When I return to India, I'll take my 10th trip, this time to Mysore in southern India.

It is so important because, one, that's where so much of the activity is -- that's where you can get a lot done, meet new people, who maybe don't know why this relationship is in their interests.

Tell the story about what it is we are working on, and yes, we hope to get out far and wide across the country and, as we implement the president and the prime minister's kind of bold vision in this renewed relationship.

In his remarks before he left India and later here in DC, the president spoke of religious intolerance in India and that it was very much anti-Gandhian.Several observers have said it took away some of the sheen from the euphoria of the visit and the summit. Has it?

I was there in Siri Fort that day when the president gave that speech and for anyone who was in that auditorium -- and there were several thousand people there, young and old -- you could feel the energy, you could feel the excitement, and I would argue quite the opposite.

It didn't detract from any part of the visit. It really added so much richness and so much to think about.

I'd encourage anyone who has not read the speech in total to read it. It is a speech in two parts really. It's a speech about all the areas of cooperation and the importance of the US and India relationship.

The second part of the speech is more reflective. It's a reflection on the challenges the United States has had in striving to form a more perfect union, on race, on gender, on rights, and it's a conversation with the Indian people as well, about the kinds of issues that can halt their progress.

It was a set of remarks given as a friend and a supporter of India and from a leader that was drawing upon our own experience with these issues.

The words were powerful and they speak for themselves and they added great weight to the visit.

There has been criticism that Prime Minister Modi took his time in reacting to some of the Hindutva groups, the vandalism of churches, violence against Christian leaders, and the forced conversions. Is this something you have been bringing up?

Look, human rights, religious freedom, other universal rights are issues that we are going to raise and we will continue to raise.

We are encouraged by what the prime minister said recently on these issues...

Even though he was criticised for taking his time over it?

I think his remarks were welcome. We will keep a close eye on these issues. They are very important and as are other elements of our human rights and religious freedom which are important elements on our agenda.

So, absolutely, we'll keep a focus on them.

US Ambassador to India Rich Verma with Barack Obama

Image: Richard Rahul Verma, the first Indian American to be appointed US Ambassador to India, with President Obama in the White House.


How encouraged are you that the dialogue with Pakistan has been resurrected?

The (Indian) foreign secretary's trip there was a very positive development and we're encouraged by the dialogue and look forward to the next steps.

As you know, we've been very supportive of the dialogue between the two countries, supportive of greater economic integration. So, it was a very welcome step.

Is there any truth to the contention in some quarters that during the president's visit, there was some sort of huge pressure on India to get the talks with Pakistan re-started?

I am not going to get into what the president and the prime minister talked about specifically. I will say, the president and the prime minister had very good rapport and met four or five times -- just the two of them -- which was terrific.

As the president said, it's natural for not only the two of them to be friends, but our countries have so many values in common, and that's why our friendship makes so much sense. It is reflective of the commonalities between our two countries.

What has been prompting some of these observers to talk about this was because a fortnight after the president left, they say, on the pretext of wishing him for the World Cup, Prime Minister Modi called (Pakistan Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif and told him that he wanted to improve relations with Pakistan and dispatched Foreign Secretary (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar to Islamabad.

Also, that the Modi government had told the Pakistani government, that it had no objections to the Pakistani high commissioner meeting with the Hurriyat leaders, etc.

Is this something you initiated or are aware of?

I would give credit to the States that came together in a dialogue, and I guess I would leave it at that.

In your February speech to the Vivekananda Foundation, you also spoke of India being a key partner in Afghanistan's future and that the US looks forward to continuing to discuss and engage with India on this issue.

So, how much of an Afghanistan role do you envisage for India?

That's really a question for India to decide. Obviously, the role they have played economically, on infrastructure, on training, on skills development, have been very important.

My sense is that they intend to continue that civil society and infrastructure building, which will be very important to Afghanistan's future.

In terms of counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing between the US and India, has that been ramped up?

Absolutely. Our intelligence cooperation, counter-terrorism cooperation, homeland security cooperation were all important parts of the president's visit, and are all important parts of our security partnership. So, absolutely, we are aiming to do more in each category.

Some of your administration colleagues at the National Security Council -- Ben Rhodes, Phil Reiner -- have lauded India's role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, for example, with its dramatic reduction of Iranian oil imports, and also making clear that India is not for a nuclear weaponised Iran.

Considering India's civilisational ties with Iran going back centuries, and the fact that there is a large Shia population in India, does the US see a role for India in terms of the Iran negotiations?

The P 5 plus 1 negotiations are taking place currently and that is a critically important process. The fact is the United States and India do share the common objective of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and India has expressed that view through the United Nations.

The United States, with its allies, have obviously taken a leadership role in imposing sweeping economic sanctions and India's oil purchases from Iran are now part of the joint plan of action.

All of this is very important in ensuring that Iran takes a different path and that they can have a different pathway and a reintegration into the Western economy if they choose a different path on nuclear proliferation, on State sponsor(ship) of terrorism.

There is a whole series of steps they need to take, but obviously India's role in supporting the sanctions regime has been very important.

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Aziz Haniffa/ in Washington, DC