Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has denied that discrimination against minorities has existed under his government during a news conference with United States President Joe Biden.
Asked on Thursday by a US reporter what steps he was willing to take to “improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech”, Modi said they did not need to be improved.
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“Our constitution and our government and we have proved democracy can deliver. When I say deliver, regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender – there is absolutely no space for any discrimination [in my government],” the Hindu nationalist leader told reporters at the White House.
“Democracy is our spirit,” Modi, who rarely takes questions from journalists, said through an interpreter. “Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy, and our ancestors have actually put words to this concept.”
As Biden hosts Modi, human rights advocates and some US legislators are questioning the Democratic president’s decision to offer the high honour of a state visit to a leader whose nine-year tenure over the world’s biggest democracy has seen a backslide in political, religious and press freedoms.
Modi, as the chief minister of India’s Gujarat state, was banned from entering the US over the 2002 religious riots in his state in which mostly Muslims were killed.
Since he took over as India’s prime minister in 2014, the 72-year-old leader has been accused of presiding over his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passing anti-Muslim legislation and implementing anti-Muslim policies. That includes a law on citizenship and the end of the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, in 2019.
The United Nations human rights office described the 2019 citizenship law as “fundamentally discriminatory” for excluding Muslim migrants.
Critics have also pointed to anti-conversion legislation that challenged the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief.
There has also been demolitions of properties owned by Muslims in the name of removing illegal constructions and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when Modi’s BJP party was in power.
India has slid from 140th in the World Press Freedom Index to 161st this year, its lowest point, while also leading the list for the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for five consecutive years.
In an annual report on religious freedom, the US Department of State also pointed to police and vigilante violence against minorities along with inflammatory statements by members of the BJP.
Reporting from the White House, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said Modi denied some of the accusations against his government during the news conference with Biden.
“The US president talking about the importance of religious pluralism and then Narendra Modi, the Indian leader, responding with regard to his crackdown on religious minorities, namely Muslims in his country – really denying some of the accusations that have been levelled against him and saying that he embraces religious pluralism, something that the US president has also been pushing to underscore,” she said.