Trump defends Modi, but doesn’t take position on controversial Indian citizenship law

NEW DELHI – President Donald Trump concluded his first official trip to India Tuesday without taking a firm stance on a controversial new citizenship law hanging over President Narenda Modi and his government, one that sparked street clashes and left at least 10 people dead in India’s capital during his 36-hour visit.

The president defended Modi’s Hindu-nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, saying it had “worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom” despite mounting criticism over a law that critics say discriminates against Muslims.

“We did talk about religious freedom. And I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me: He wants people to have religious freedom,” Trump told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. 

Modi has faced international backlash over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries. The deadly clashes first broke out Sunday in Muslim-majority neighborhoods in northeast Delhi. 

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Trump sidestepped questions about the violence that erupted during his two-day visit, saying he was leaving it up to Modi, who was noticeably absent from the press conference amid the unrest. The Indian prime minster has notoriously refused to hold press conferences during his six years in office. 

“I don’t want to discuss that, I want to leave that to India,” Trump told reporters when asked about his stance on the law. “And hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in New Delhi on February 25, 2020.

Modi has faced mounting criticism over recent policies some perceive as anti-Muslim, such as revoking the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir’s special autonomy. India has tightened its grip on Kashmir by imposing a media blackout and jailing political dissenters.

A bipartisan group of senators wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month to voice their concerns over Modi’s recent policies, including CAA.

While he deferred to Modi, Trump lashed out at Democrats and two Supreme Court judges during a press conference in which he promised not to be “controversial.” Trump said he didn’t want to overshadow the “fantastic two days,” promising to be “conservative” in his answers.  

The press conference capped Trump’s whirlwind 36-hour visit, which spanned three cities and included an elaborate welcome tour that featured a massive rally at the world’s biggest cricket stadium and a sunset tour of the famously marbled Taj Mahal.

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President Donald Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, pause as they tour the Taj Mahal on  Monday.

On the second day of his diplomatic sprint, Trump turned his attention to more strategic issues. He began the day with a formal welcome ceremony at the regal Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace, where he was escorted by red-uniformed guards on horseback as cannons signaled the arrival of his armored car, known as “the Beast.”

He conducted a series of meetings with Modi and other government officials as well as Indian business executives who he is hoping to convince to invest more in the U.S. 

In a joint statement Tuesday afternoon, Trump and Modi’s blossoming bromance was on full display. He praised his Indian counterpart for the colorful welcome and said he was “awed by the majesty of India,” declaring the U.S. special relationship with India “has never been as good as it is right now.”

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The president said he remained “optimistic” about inking an elusive trade agreement with India, the world’s fifth biggest economy, despite differences that have stalled recent negotiations. 

Instead, Trump said his “productive visit” had elicited more modest agreements, including the announcement that Exxon Mobil had signed a deal to improve India’s natural gas distribution network. The two leaders said they also reached nonbinding agreements on mental health and drug products. He also touted an expected $3.5 billion-deal that India signed for military equipment, including naval helicopters.

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The president has said he wants the U.S. to be India’s premier defense partner, but Russia remains India’s biggest arms supplier as New Delhi has agreed to purchase Moscow’s $5.4bn S-400 missile defense system. The U.S. has threatened sanctions over the move. 

The president and first lady will wrap up their trip with a state banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the largely ceremonial president of India, before boarding Air Force One for an overnight flight back to Washington. 

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