US Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin on Saturday said he had a conversation with Indian ministers about the human rights of minorities in the country as it was important for partners to have "those kinds of discussions".
Asked at a news conference in Delhi if he had spoken with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about "violations of human rights especially against Muslim minorities in the northeast", General Austin said, "I did not have an opportunity to talk with him about that. I did have a conversation with other members of the cabinet on this issue."
"We have to remember that India is oaur partner, a partner whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly, we feel comfortable doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and make progress," he added.
Earlier, responding to a question from NDTV about whether he shared concerns flagged by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about "the deteriorating situation of democracy in India", General Austin said human rights and rule of law was important to the US.
"You've heard President [Joe] Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values. As a democracy that's pretty important to us. India is a democratic country and you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together," he said.
General Austin is making the first visit by a top member of US President Joe Biden's administration to India as part of efforts to forge an alliance of countries seeking to push back against China's assertiveness in the region. He visited Japan and South Korea before arriving here.
He met PM Modi on his arrival in New Delhi on Friday and held talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. On Saturday, he met Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. He leaves on Sunday.
"India, in particular, is an increasingly important partner among today's rapidly shifting international dynamics," General Austin said after meeting Mr Singh.
Ahead of his visit, he was asked to raise concerns about democracy in the country with Indian officials by the chief of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee
In a letter to him, Senator Robert Menendez pointed out that while the US and India's partnership is "critical to meet the challenges of the 21st Century", the partnership "must rest on adherence to democratic values". The Indian government, he added, "has been trending away from those values".
"The Indian government's ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India," he wrote.
"Moreover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the U.S. human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its 'Free' status in its yearly global survey," the US Senator said.
US-Indian relations have historically been prickly but China's growing aggression in the region pushed them closer together under PM Modi and former US President Donald Trump. After US remarks on the farmers' protests, India had cited the January 6 Capitol Hill violence.
Among other thorny subjects, General Austin said he did not discuss with Indian ministers possible American sanctions over India's plan to buy long-range S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. "India hasn't acquired the S-400 Russian missile system yet, so the issue of sanctions was not discussed," he said.