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India has a "great tradition" of tolerance but it has its own challenges, the US president's nominee to be the next envoy to India, Kenneth Juster, has said, expressing concern over shrinking space for civil society, rise of Hindu nationalism and increased scrutiny of some foreign NGOs.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing, assured that if confirmed, he would work with India to seek ways to improve the situation.
The US, he asserted has to figure out the "most appropriate way" to interact with India to be productive and in advancing the perspective that the Americans have.
"India has a great tradition of tolerance. It's a multi-religious country and it has the values that we have in that area. Nonetheless there are incidents that occur from time to time in the religious area that are troubling them," Juster said.
"I would want to, if confirmed (by the Senate) work with the Indians on understanding better and seeking ways to improve their situation," Juster said, responding to a volley of questions from top American lawmakers.
Juster said he has urged Sam Brownback who might be the US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom to travel to India.
If confirmed, part of the challenge is to find out the most productive way to pursue them and to find the right interlocutors and way to address these points, he said.
"But India itself as you know has a very active civil society that raises these issues and discusses them. Ultimately as a democracy they are going to have to come to grips with it. They can play a very important role in terms of their viewpoints on them and our support in this area," Senator Bob Corker said.
Senator Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the first to raise the issue in his opening remarks.
"The space for civil society in India continues to shrink as Hindu nationalism rises and international NGOs face undue scrutiny," he said.
Corker said he also remains concerned about the scale of India's human trafficking problem, including bonded labour.
The State Department's Trafficking in Persons report ranks India as a Tier-2 [country], citing the government's record of investigations and prosecutions as being "disappointingly low", he said.
Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member followed him.
It is "unacceptable" that India has some 18 million bonded labourers.
"What really is and should be a shared goal of both of our great democracies on religious tolerance?" asked Senator Tim Kaine referring to the complaints he received from his Sikh constituents.
"These issues are of great concern to me and of our government. The Indians are also very concerned about it," Juster said in response.
The vibrant Indian press and civil society discusses these issues at great length, he told the lawmakers.
Nonetheless especially at the state and local level these problems persist as indicated in the State Department's annual trafficking in persons report.
"It's something that I will if confirmed, and if I am on the ground, try to figure out the best interlocutors to move this forward," he assured the Senator.
Responding to a question on increased scrutiny of international NGOs, Juster said there have been regulations that need to be enforced in an even and transparent way.
"I am concerned that it seems that some foreign NGOs seem to be singled out at times," he said, adding that if confirmed, he would want to get a better handle on those issues on the ground.
The Indian government, which has tightened the rules for NGOs, has already cancelled the registration of more than 10,000 organisations in the last three years for allegedly non-filing of annual returns as mandated in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
In addition, renewals of more than 1,300 NGOs have been denied or closed in recent past for allegedly violating various provisions of the FCRA.
Cardin suggested an institutionalised mechanism between India and the US for the conversation on human rights issues.
Such exchanges, he noted, is not one-sided.
"It's a share of practices in which we as the two largest democracies could show our leadership globally on democracy and human rights issues. When you consider that I had support from the government of India they were interested in it. We didn't pursue it to completion and I would just ask that you look at that as a possible way to advance this agenda," Cardin told Juster.
"They (Indians) are democracy that grapples with these issues. We have to figure out the most appropriate way to interact with them to be productive and in advancing the perspective that we have," Juster said.