Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied that discrimination against minorities existed under his government during a press conference with US President Joe Biden on Thursday, despite rights groups and State Department reports of abuses.
Biden said he discussed human rights and other democratic values with Modi during their talks in the White House.
Asked at the press conference 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 suggested they did not need to be improved.
"Our Constitution and our government, and we have proved democracy can deliver. When I say deliver - caste, creed, religion, gender, there is no space for any discrimination (in my government)," Modi told reporters.
In reports on human rights and religious freedom, the State Department raised concerns over treatment of Muslims, Hindu Dalits, Christians and other religious minorities in India while also listing a crackdown on journalists.
Rights advocates and dozens of lawmakers from Biden's Democratic Party urged him to raise the issue publicly with Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has held power since 2014.
Protesters decry Modi's remarks
Dozens of protesters gathered near the White House on Thursday.
"Modi should think why that was the first question asked to him in the press briefing. It's obvious to all there is rights abuse in India," said Ajit Sahi, a protester and advocacy director at the Indian American Muslim Council.
"Modi's comments (that there is no religious discrimination by his government) is a complete lie. India has become a black-hole for religious minorities," said Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of Hindutva Watch, a group that monitors reports of attacks on Indian minorities.
India's importance for the US to counter China and the economic ties between the countries make it difficult for Washington to criticize human rights in the world's largest democracy, political analysts said. Biden rolled out the red carpet for Modi on Thursday.
The only two Muslim women members of the US Congress - Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib - along with some other progressive lawmakers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, boycotted Modi's address to the Congress on Thursday, citing allegations of abuse of Indian dissidents and minorities, especially Muslims.
US Senator Bernie Sanders said Modi's "aggressive Hindu nationalism" has "left little space for India's religious minorities."
The benefits of the Indian government's policies are accessible to everyone, Modi said. Rights groups have asserted, however, that dissidents, minorities and journalists have come under attack since Modi took office.
India has slid from 140th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2014 to 161st this year, its lowest point, while also leading the list for the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for five consecutive years.
The UN human rights office described a 2019 citizenship law as "fundamentally discriminatory" for excluding Muslim migrants. Critics have pointed to anti-conversion legislation that challenged the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief and the revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir's special status in 2019 as well.
There has also been demolition of properties owned by Muslims in the name of removing illegal construction; and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.
"The protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India, that is something worth mentioning," former US President Barack Obama, whom Modi calls a close friend, told CNN in an interview aired on Thursday.
"If you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart," Obama said of what he would have told Modi now.