President Trump sidesteps questions on India’s citizenship law even as violent clashes erupt in Delhi

“The US-Indian partnership is now truly stronger than ever before”, Trump says wrapping up an “unforgettable, extraordinary” visit to India

By Geeta Goindi

New Delhi, February 26, 2020 – Wrapping up a two-day whirlwind visit to India, President Donald Trump sidestepped questions on India’s controversial and contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) making it abundantly clear that it is an internal matter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The new law, approved by India’s Parliament late last year, provides faster naturalization for persecuted minorities in neighboring countries while excluding Muslims.

It sparked violent clashes, with some 13 fatalities, in the north-east section of the capital during the presidential visit and when queried about it, Trump replied, it is “up to India” to handle.

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Addressing a press conference Tuesday evening at the ITC Maurya hotel, he told reporters that the issue of religious freedom did come up in his discussions with the prime minister.

“We did talk about religious freedom”, Trump acknowledged and proceeded to praise Modi who, he said, “was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly. And he said that in India, they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom”.

Trump said he heard about “the individual attack” in Delhi, but did not discuss it with Modi. “That’s up to India”, he asserted.

The presser lasted some 45 minutes with ‘Hail to the Chief’ playing from a loudspeaker as the president made his entry.

Given that the violence in Delhi loomed over his visit, Trump was probed about his position on the CAA. “I don’t want to discuss that”, he said skirting the queries. “I want to leave that to India, and hopefully they are going to make the right decision for the people. That’s really up to India”.

Trump reiterated that he discussed religious liberty with Modi during the bilateral meeting “for a long period of time in front of a lot of people”. He told reporters, “We discussed that and specifically Muslims. And we also discussed Christians, and I had a very powerful answer from the prime minister”, he said without revealing his answer.

Inexplicably, he mentioned that Modi told him India had 14 million Muslims “a fairly short while ago” and now that figure has increased to 200 million. “And he said that they are working very closely with the Muslim community”, he added.

A journalist pointed out, ‘You, yourself have been criticized for policies that have discriminated against Muslims, like the travel ban. There’s also been a rise in hate crimes over the last couple of years in the US. So, are you in a position to talk to him about those subjects’?

Trump replied, “Yes, I won the travel ban”, a measure that restricts travel to the United States from a number of Muslim-majority countries. “A lot of people said I lost it”, he noted refuting such a claim.

“The travel ban is not a thing against Muslims”, he said. “It’s a thing against areas where we don’t want people coming into our country that are going to cause problems, cause harm, cause death, hurt our people. And I feel very strongly about that”.

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In his opening remarks at the press conference, Trump spoke of a very productive visit noting that India has agreed to purchase over $3 billion in American helicopters and advanced military equipment, marking an expansion in bilateral defense cooperation.

A trade deal, however, alludes the two nations whose leaders have agreed to forge an economic relationship that is fair and reciprocal.

“It has to be reciprocal”, Trump insisted at the press conference. “And the money you’re talking about is major”, he said responding to a question. “But the United States has to be treated fairly, and India understands that. The relationship is outstanding, but India understands that”, he emphasized.

“I would say if the deal happens with India, it will be toward the end of the year. And if it doesn’t happen, we’ll do something else that will be very satisfactory. It’ll be very good”, Trump said.

In a move that is seen as strengthening bilateral economic ties, the US International Development Finance Corporation will be establishing a permanent presence in New Delhi.

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Responding to a question on terrorism emanating from Pakistan at the presser, Trump said, “We talked a lot about Pakistan” in the bilateral meeting with Modi. “I have a very good relationship with Prime Minister (Imran) Khan”, he said while praising India as “a brave nation”.

“I said I’ll help. I’ll do whatever I have to do, if I can do that, because my relationship with both gentlemen is so good. But, there has been difficulty in Pakistan, and we’re seeing what we can do about it. Anything I can do to mediate, anything I can do to help, I would do”, Trump told reporters.

The president noted that the Indian leader is “very, very strongly against terrorism. Prime Minister Modi is a very religious man, as you know. He’s a very calm man. But, he’s actually a very, very strong person, very tough actually when I’ve seen him in action. And he’s got that foremost on his mind: terrorism. He’ll take care of it”, he said confidently.

Responding to a query by an Indian reporter on the nature of diplomacy, Trump said, “I admire your country tremendously. I respect your prime minister tremendously. And I think it’s really a diplomacy of friendship, and I think it’s going to work out really well”.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at their joint press statement, February 25, on the lawn of Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Earlier, in a press statement with the prime minister by his side at the Hyderabad House, Trump thanked the Indian leader for such an “outstanding welcome”. The president and First Lady Melania Trump arrived in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on Monday and headed to the world’s largest cricket stadium in Motera where a rapturous crowd, over 100,000 strong, greeted them at an event titled ‘Namaste Trump’.

“This has been a very special visit – unforgettable, extraordinary”, Trump said at the Hyderabad House. “The US-Indian partnership is now truly stronger than ever before. This was a great visit with a tremendous friend and a tremendous leader, Prime Minister Modi”.

It is “very, very wonderful to be with you”, Trump told the Indian leader who he was meeting for the fifth time in the last eight months. “Melania and I have been awed by the majesty of India and the exceptional kindness and generosity of the Indian people. We’ll always remember the magnificent welcome the citizens of your home state showed us upon arrival. It was a profound expression of strength and of real love. Really, it was love”, he said.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk along a cordon of cultural performers upon President Trump’s arrival, February 24, at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad, India. Official White House Photo by Shea Craighead

“Our relationship is so special with India. It has never been as good as it is right now and I think that’s because the two leaders of each country – really, we feel very strongly about each other”, Trump professed.

Modi stated that “the unprecedented and historic welcome for President Trump” in Motera signified “once again that the relations between the United States and India are not just limited to the relations between two governments: they are people-driven and they are people-centric”.

Noting that “This relationship is the most important partnership of the 21st century”, he revealed, “President Trump and I have taken a decision to raise our partnership to the level of a comprehensive global strategic partnership”.

Modi said he had a “productive exchange” with Trump on several bilateral issues including trade, defense and security, energy, technology cooperation, global connectivity, and people-to-people ties.

“The cornerstone of this special friendship between India and the United States is our people-to-people relations”, he underscored. “Whether it is as professionals or students, the Indian diaspora in the US has contributed the most to furthering these relations. These ambassadors of India are not only contributing to the US economy with their talent and hard work, they are also energizing the American society with their democratic values and rich culture”, he said making a subtle pitch for H-1B visa holders and other skilled professionals stuck in the green card backlog in America.

Modi revealed that he requested Trump to end the impasse over the proposed Totalization Agreement which would help some 500,000 Indians working in the US avoid double taxation of income with respect to social security taxes.

“I have requested President Trump that the contribution of our professionals, in terms of social security, should be discussed further within the framework of a totalization agreement. This will be of mutual interest to both of us”, he said.

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Trump skirts questions on India’s citizenship law even as violent clashes erupt in Delhi


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