IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama draws ire of Indian officials with call to protect Muslim rights

Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party accused the former U.S. president of hypocrisy, saying he had bombed Muslim countries while in office.
Obama is visiting Athens to speak at the SNF Nostos Conference focused on how to strengthen democratic culture and the importance of investing in the next generation of leaders.
Former President Barack Obama, pictured in Athens last week, called for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to protect the rights of Muslims and other minorities. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

NEW DELHI — Indian officials have criticized former President Barack Obama after he called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to protect the rights of minorities, especially Muslims.

Obama told CNN last week that the “protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India” was “something worth mentioning” during President Joe Biden’s meeting with Modi, who was in Washington for a state visit that many civil rights groups condemned.

“If you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart,” he said. 

Cabinet ministers from Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party responded by questioning the treatment of Muslims during Obama’s presidency.

“Six countries with Muslim-dominant populations faced bombings because of him. Have the bombings not occurred from Syria to Saudi to Yemen to Iraq?” Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters Monday. 

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh similarly said Monday that Obama “should think about himself, how many Muslim countries have been attacked by him.”

BJP politician Himanta Biswa Sarma — the chief minister of the state of Assam, which has a large Muslim population — also derided Obama last week in response to a sarcastic tweet from an Indian journalist asking whether state police were going to arrest the former president over his remarks.

“There are many Hussain Obama in India itself,” Sarma replied, misspelling Obama’s middle name, which is commonly used by Muslims. “We should prioritize taking care of them before considering going to Washington.”

Officials in India, the world’s largest democracy, deny accusations that Muslims and other religious minorities have been treated unequally under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014.

The State Department, human rights groups and others point to the end of autonomy for Kashmir, India’s only majority-Muslim state, as well as a citizenship law that the United Nations described as “fundamentally discriminatory” over the exclusion of Muslim migrants.

Before he became prime minister, Modi was banned from the U.S. over allegations that he failed to stop riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time. Modi denies having been complicit in the attacks, and last year India’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that he should be cleared of all charges. 

Biden said Thursday that he and Modi discussed “democratic values” during their meeting. They appeared at a news conference at which Modi, who rarely takes questions from journalists and has never held a solo news conference, was asked about the accusations of religious discrimination by his government.

He said that he was “surprised” by the question and that India is a democracy with “absolutely no space” for discrimination.

“Democracy is our spirit,” he said. “Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy. And our ancestors have actually put words to this concept, and that is in the form of our constitution.

“In India’s democratic values,” he added, “there’s absolutely no discrimination neither on basis of caste, creed or age or any kind of geographic location.”

Union Minister Hardeep Puri echoed his remarks Monday, telling reporters that India was not just any democracy but the “mother of democracy.” He highlighted the diversity of the South Asian country of 1.4 billion people and said its minorities were “safe.”

The reporter who asked Modi the question about discrimination, Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal, quickly became the subject of an online harassment campaign by Modi supporters, drawing strong condemnation from the White House.

“It’s completely unacceptable, and it’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that ... were on display last week during the state visit,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday.