JUNE 22, 2023
Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended Indian democracy when pressed on religious intolerance and freedom of speech in a rare instance of taking questions from reporters.
Modi, following a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday, said he was “really surprised” to hear India’s commitment to democratic values questioned by Americans.
“In both countries, democracy is in our DNA,” Modi said. “We live democracy, and our ancestors have actually put words to this concept, and that is in the form of our Constitution”
He added, “Regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender, there’s absolutely no space for discrimination.”
Modi’s visit to the White House, which includes a formal state dinner, has been dominated by talk of US-India strategic convergence on geopolitical, economic and defense issues. Yet the lavish reception has led to criticism that the Biden administration, which has long emphasized human rights in foreign policy, is ignoring Modi’s controversial track record.
Pressed on that question Thursday, Biden said he and Modi — who has rarely participated in press conferences during his nine years ruling the world’s largest democracy — had “a good discussion about democratic values.”
Both countries “cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights, which face challenges around the world” but which “remains so vital to the success of each of our nations — press freedom, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity,” Biden said.
Later in the day, a handful of progressive Democrats, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, boycotted Modi’s address to a joint session of Congress because of concerns about his administration’s human rights record.
“We’ve seen how Prime Minister Modi has incited dangerous nationalism and violence in India, has promoted Islamophobia, and more,” Jamaal Bowman, another New York representative who also boycotted, said in a tweet.
In his speech to Congress, Modi said India and the US and India were defined by “a spirit of democracy, inclusion and sustainability.” He pointed out that India endured “1,000 years of foreign rule” before India’s independence in 1947, a period that includes British colonialism but also covers the rule of the Muslim Mughal emperors.
Although Modi has won two federal elections, critics and human rights organizations say he’s weakened democratic institutions and led crackdowns on the press, civil society groups and the political opposition. They also accuse his ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, of fueling religious intolerance against India’s religious minorities, including Muslims.
The Biden administration has decided to largely remain silent, at least publicly, on India’s democratic backsliding and human rights situation, according to senior American officials, as the US intensifies efforts to keep New Delhi on its side in its growing rivalry with China.
The approach is an example of how Biden’s focus on human rights — and his framing of a global conflict between democracies and autocracies — has run up against the strategic realities of a world where rivals such as China and Russia are vying for greater control.
The contrast is even greater since Biden referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a dictator at a fundraiser this week, on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing to try to improve relations.
Under Modi’s administration, “respect for civil and political rights has markedly deteriorated,” the group Human Rights Watch said in a statement before Modi’s visit. The group said that “civil society advocates, journalists, and human rights defenders critical of the government” faced persecution and that BJP supporters have “increasingly committed violent attacks against targeted groups,” including Muslims and other religious minorities.