Trump sees commitment to religious freedom in India as riots break out

  • >> Peter Baker, Michael Crowley and Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-26 09:04:06 BdST

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tour Taj Mahal in Agra, India, Monday, Feb 24, 2020. The New York Times

In the lush garden of Hyderabad House, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated their friendship and talked of a modern, diverse and unified India. Across town, an explosion of anger over Modi’s sectarian policies set a neighbourhood on edge, leaving a trail of dead bodies and a widening religious rift.

The two sides of New Delhi on display on Tuesday underscored the disparity between the hopes of Trump’s trip and the tensions outside the fortified environs of world leaders. Just miles from the pomp of a presidential visit, a mob of hot-tempered Hindu men wielding iron bars hunted their Muslim neighbours on streets littered with scraps of bricks.

As he completed his two-day stay, Trump focused only on the positive, offering validation of Modi as a champion of religious liberty even as the Indian government has adopted Hindu-first policies targeting Muslims. The president publicly accepted Modi’s word that he treats the 1.3 billion people in his diverse country fairly without regard to faith and made no mention of the months of protests by those who think otherwise.

“We did talk about religious freedom, and I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me,” Trump told reporters. “He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly.”

“They have really worked hard on religious freedom,” Trump added. “We talked about it for a long time and I really believe that’s what he wants.”

His reluctance to criticise Modi sharply contrasted with his willingness to assail his domestic critics even while abroad.

During his concluding news conference, Trump attacked Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former first lady Michelle Obama, Rep Adam B Schiff, and the unnamed whistleblower whose disclosures led to the president’s impeachment.

He also confirmed that his White House had embarked on a hunt for disloyal officials to purge in the aftermath of his acquittal in a Senate trial but said it would not be “very many people,” without estimating how many. “We want to have people that are good for the country, are loyal to our country,” he said. “Because that was a disgraceful situation.”

The president’s embrace of Modi came at a time when the government has revoked the statehood of Kashmir, the disputed majority Muslim territory; rounded up Muslim leaders there; and enacted a law giving preference to non-Muslim migrants naturalising as citizens. Protests over the citizenship law culminated in street violence that cost at least 11 lives since Sunday.

Trump made no public mention of those actions until asked and even then professed no view of them. Instead, he framed his first visit to India as president on terms he preferred.

Just as religious disputes drew no outward concern, the president insisted that the two leaders had made “tremendous progress” toward the landmark trade agreement he has sought even though there was no evident sign of breakthrough on the major issues that have divided negotiators for months.

“We think we’re at a point where our relationship is so special with India, it has never been as good as it is now,” Trump said. “We feel very strongly about each other, and we have done something that is very unique.”

The president often personalises his relations with foreign leaders. His willingness to accept Modi’s version of events recalled Trump’s deference to President Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential election and his professed belief in Kim Jong Un’s vague promises to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Even Trump’s boasts about the scale of his reception in India were extravagant.

He claimed before his arrival that Modi had promised him crowds of up to 10 million people. The actual number lining the streets of Ahmadabad on Monday was well under one-tenth that amount. Despite saying he had been told his greeting was the greatest “ever given to any head of state from any country,” Trump was not even the top-drawing American president to visit India, looking back to Dwight D Eisenhower’s crowds.

Only after he was no longer in Modi’s presence did Trump return to some of his long-standing complaints about India’s trade policies, complaining to reporters that New Delhi maintained unfairly high tariffs on American goods, including Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

But while the two leaders were together, it was all sunshine, long on florid language about the strength of their relationship and short on concrete results. Trump and Modi celebrated a series of modest agreements that were set before the visit, including a $3 billion arms purchase and a letter of cooperation between Exxon Mobil and India’s energy sector. They agreed to create a joint counternarcotics working group to reduce opioid abuse.

During his news conference, Trump also addressed growing alarm over the coronavirus and the return of 14 Americans infected with coronavirus to the country last week. He defended that action, even though he was privately furious about it.

“I felt that we should bring them back,” he said. “They’re Americans — we should bring them back.”

During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Africa, Trump tweeted in outrage that Americans infected with that virus should not be allowed into the country. Asked whether his current view clashed with his prior one, he rejected the comparison.

“There’s a vast difference” between the two epidemics, Trump said, noting that Ebola was nearly always fatal while the death rate among those infected with the new coronavirus has been relatively low. “At that time, nobody had ever even heard of Ebola or ever conceived of something where you basically — the people would disintegrate.”

Trump also vowed not to accept foreign assistance during his reelection campaign and rejected American intelligence assessments that Russia was already working to help him as it did in 2016.

“I want no help from any country, and I haven’t been given help from any country,” Trump said.

Modi welcomed Trump to the presidential palace on Tuesday with the roar of guns and an honour guard of red-uniformed soldiers on horseback and later hosted him at a lavish state banquet. “President Donald Trump’s contribution in raising our relations to this level have been invaluable,” Modi said.

Trump basked in the visit. “Nobody else that came here got the kind of reception we got,” Trump said.

The two leaders declined to answer questions at their joint appearance before the news media. Although Modi has taken questions from reporters while overseas next to other world leaders, he is the first prime minister in recent memory to not have held any news conferences in India. And so Trump waited until later to meet reporters on his own.

He did gently urge Modi’s government to respect freedom on the internet, which the Indian government has shut down repeatedly. Talking about the need for secure 5G wireless, the president added that it should be “a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity — not to do anything where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship.”

A trade deal with India has been a priority for two years for Trump, who would like another economic agreement to show while campaigning before the November election. But the two sides have been divided over farm products, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs. Trump has complained that India treats the United States unfairly and called Modi a “tough negotiator.”

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement, and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” Trump told reporters, without elaborating.

For Trump, it was a day to emphasise the optimism. It was, he said, “a very special visit — unforgettable, extraordinary.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company