Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied that discrimination on the basis of religion is acceptable in his country during a rare appearance before reporters at the White House on Thursday.
Mr Modi, who does not often interact with reporters and has not held a single press conference since becoming prime minister in 2014, took two questions — one from an American reporter, another from an Indian reporter — at a joint press conference alongside President Joe Biden in the East Room following a bilateral meeting between the two leaders.
Asked what steps he and his government would be willing to take “to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities ... and to uphold free speech,” Mr Modi replied through a translator that Indians “live democracy” as laid out by their ancestors in the country’s 1949 constitution.
“Our government has taken the basic principles of democracy and on that basis our constitution is made and the entire country runs on that ... we have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender, there's absolutely no space for discrimination,” he said.
Continuing, Mr Modi said democracy cannot exist without “human values,” “human rights,” and “humanity,” and reiterated that there is “no space” for discrimination for those living in a democracy.
“In India, the benefits that are provided by the government is accessible to all, whoever deserves those benefits is available to everybody. And that is why in India's democratic values, there's absolutely no discrimination, neither on basis of caste, creed, or age or any kind of geographic location,” he said.
The Indian prime minister, under whose leadership his country’s authorities have routinely harassed and jailed journalists, did not address the second part of the reporter’s question on press freedom.
Mr Modi’s defence of his country’s record on religious freedom comes as religious and press freedom advocates have continued to sound the alarm about the treatment of Muslims and other minorities under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government he leads.
The Indian prime minister was actually banned from the United States in the years prior to becoming his country’s head of government. In 2005, the US State Department denied him permission to enter the country due to his role in deadly riots during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The ban on his entry into the US, which was imposed under the International Religious Freedom Act, was not lifted until he became prime minister in 2014.
Mr Modi has long been accused of being complicit in sectarian violence in which over 1,000 Muslims were killed in 2002 while he was chief minister of Gujarat. Mr Modi allegedly stood by as Hindu mobs terrorised the state’s Muslim population in retaliatory violence after a group of Hindu pilgrims were killed, though he was later cleared by a team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court.
His appearance at the White House was part of a state visit that will see him address a joint meeting of the US Congress later in the day before he returns to the White House for a state dinner.
A group of progressive Democrats in Congress, led by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is planning to boycott his speech, citing Mr Modi’s record on human rights and religious freedom.
“I encourage my colleagues who stand for pluralism, tolerance, and freedom of the press to join me in doing the same,” the New York Democrat wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, arguing Congress shouldn’t extend such an honour to “individuals with deeply troubling human rights records – particularly for individuals whom our own State Department has concluded are engaged in systematic human rights abuses of religious minorities and caste-oppressed minorities”.
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