Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden have faced direct questions at the White House over alleged human rights abuses committed under Modi’s leadership, as the leaders hail the need for an enduring partnership in the years ahead.
Biden and Modi held the brief news conference on Thursday during the Indian prime minister’s official state visit to the United States, which was set to be capped later in the night by a high-profile state dinner at the White House.
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“The prime minister and I had a good discussion about democratic values,” Biden said, when asked to respond to criticism the Biden administration was overlooking alleged rights abuses committed by Modi in the name of geopolitics. “And it’s a common Democratic….character of both our countries…and our people – our diversity our culture our open, tolerant, robust debate.”
“It is in American’s DNA, and I believe in India’s DNA that the whole world has a stake in our success, both of us, in maintaining our democracies,” he said.
When asked about the wide range of rights groups who have accused Modi’s government of restricting freedom of expression, discriminating against minorities, and stifling critics, Modi struck a defiant tone, saying he was “surprised” by the criticism.
“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.
“And when you talk of democracy, if there are no human values, and there is no humanity, there are no human rights, then it’s not a democracy,” added Modi, who rarely takes direct questions from reporters.
Earlier in the day, Biden greeted the Indian leader on the South Lawn of the White House, an event marked by chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi” from supporters and the playing of the countries’ national anthems by a military band.
On Wednesday, Modi hosted a Yoga event at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
In Washington, both leaders hailed the need for a strong partnership in the years ahead, with concerns over stability in the Indo Pacific – and China’s growing influence – looming large.
Biden said the bond between the two countries will be a “defining relationship of the 21st century”.
Modi, speaking in Hindi, called the visit “an honour and pride for 1.4 billion people of India” and said it came as the “world order is taking a new shape”.
Following a subsequent Oval Office meeting, the two leaders vowed to boost cooperation on trade, protecting supply chains, strengthening emerging technologies, climate change and defence, among other areas of “strategic partnership”.
“Peace and security in the Indo Pacific is a common priority,” Modi told reporters. “We agree that the development and success of this region is important for the entire world.”
Modi has been to the United States five times since becoming prime minister in 2014, but this trip will be his first with the full diplomatic status of a state visit, a fact analysts said underscores how significant the Biden administration sees India’s role going forward.
Reporting from Washington, DC on Thursday, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett noted that only one other leader has been given such a welcome – with both a state dinner and an address to Congress – since Biden took office.
“The fact that he has kind of this double honour, it’s something that’s been bestowed only on one other world leader under the Biden presidency, and that is the leader of South Korea,” Halkett said, referring to South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit in April, another event in which Biden sought to shore up support against China.
“It really underscores just how important this relationship is to the United States,” she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron did not speak to Congress during his state visit to Washington last December.
Still, seventy-five legislators from the president’s Democratic Party have also pushed the Biden administration to address the rights concerns during the visit. Three progressive Democrats – US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – called on other elected officials to boycott Modi’s address to Congress.
“I encourage my colleagues who stand for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of the press to join me in doing the same,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.
On Thursday, former US President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying India risks “pulling apart” if rights of Muslim minority not respected.
“I think it is true that if the president meets with Prime Minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India, that’s something worth mentioning,” Obama said in an interview with CNN International anchor Christiane Amanpour.
Previewing the meeting, a senior US official had said Biden would bring up rights concerns without “hectoring, lecturing or scolding” the Indian leader.
Biden administration officials also outlined a list of sweeping agreements expected to be reached during the visit – on semiconductors, critical minerals, technology, space cooperation and defence cooperation and trade.
The US would also like to see India move away from its ties with Moscow, including its reliance on Russian weapons exports. India has remained neutral in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, abstaining from United Nations votes condemning the invasion.
Speaking on Thursday, Biden said the two leaders had discussed “shared efforts to mitigate humanitarian tragedies unleashed by Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine and to defend the core principles of UN Charter sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Modi, in turn, said “India has laid emphasis on resolution of dispute through dialogue and diplomacy. We are completely ready to contribute in any way we can to restore peace”.
During the visit, the US and Indian leaders were set to sign off on what one official called a “trailblazing” deal to allow General Electric Co (GE) to produce jet engines in India to power Indian military aircraft. The company said on Thursday that it signed a memorandum of understanding with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to produce the engines.
In addition, US Navy ships in the region will be able to stop in Indian shipyards for repairs under a maritime agreement reached between the two governments.
The leaders were also set to announce India’s plan to procure US-made armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, a US official said, adding: “We have now entered really a ‘next generation’ defence partnership.”