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Trump will raise issue of religious freedom with Modi: US official

Says world looking to India to uphold democratic traditions, respect for religious minorities.

By: New Delhi Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: February 23, 2020 8:35:46 am
Billboard saying “Namaste Trump” being put up near Motera stadium in Ahmedabad on Tuesday ahead of the visit of US president Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Express Photo: Javed Raja)

US President Donald Trump will raise the issue of “religious freedom” and the shared tradition of democracy “certainly in private” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a US administration official said in Washington on Saturday, ahead of Trump’s visit to India on February 24-25 — his first since assuming office.

While US officials said Trump will also raise these issues in his public remarks, there is not much opportunity for him to make such comments since the carefully choreographed media statement is not likely to have a question-and-answer session. However, there is a likelihood that the US President will have a separate press conference with the accompanying US media.

donald trump india visit, narendra modi, trump modi meeting on religious freedom, india religious freedom us, indian express Security personnel conduct a rehearsal ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit, in Ahmedabad on Saturday. (Express Photo: Javed Raja)

The US administration official also underlined that Modi, in his first speech after winning the elections last year, had talked about how “he would prioritise being inclusive of India’s religious minorities”. “And certainly, the world looks to India to maintain religious liberty and equal treatment for all under the rule of law,” the official said, in a background briefing for the US-based media.

Explained

Concern on ‘shared values’

Responding to a question on the CAA and NRC issues, the official said: “I think President Trump will talk about our shared tradition of democracy and religious freedom, both in his public remarks and then certainly in private. He will raise these issues, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration… we do have this shared commitment to upholding our universal values, the rule of law. We have great respect for India’s democratic traditions and institutions, and we will continue to encourage India to uphold those traditions.”

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As the question raised the issue of exclusion of Muslims in India from citizenship, the official said: “And we are concerned with some of the issues that you have raised. I think that the President will talk about these issues in his meetings with Prime Minister Modi and note that the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions, respect for religious minorities. Of course, it’s in the Indian Constitution — religious freedom, respect for religious minorities, and equal treatment of all religions in India.”

The official added that India has a “strong foundation” of democracy. “India is a country rich in religious, linguistic and cultural diversity. In fact, it’s the birthplace of four major world religions,” he said.

Explained | India-US ties, over the years

While the US has not condemned the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, it has nudged New Delhi to act as per the Constitution and “democratic values”. On December 13 last year, while stressing that “respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies”, the US State Department said, “The US urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values.”

On December 17, the US State Department spokesperson, alluding to the anti-CAA protests, had said: “We are closely following developments regarding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. We urge authorities to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly. We also urge protesters to refrain from violence.”

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However, New Delhi has maintained that it is an issue “internal to India”, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, in his engagements as the Indian Ambassador to the US before he was elevated to the top post, conveyed this to US officials and Congressmen in Washington DC.

But this has not tempered the criticism in the US. Just three days ago, on February 19, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — an advisory body to the US Congress — came out with a statement and a factsheet that said “there are fears that this law is part of an effort to create a religious test for Indian citizenship and could lead to the widespread disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims”.

“In December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed into law the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. This law provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Quickly after the CAA’s passage, largescale protests broke out across India with the government instituting a violent crackdown against the protesters. In conjunction with a proposed nation-wide National Register of Citizens, there are fears that this law is part of an effort to create a religious test for Indian citizenship and could lead to the widespread disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims. This factsheet provides an overview of the CAA and explains why it represents a significant downward turn in religious freedom in India,” the statement said.

While the US administration’s response has been muted, US House Foreign Affairs Committee had said, “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values… Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet.”

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