New Delhi: Former US President Barack Obama on Thursday said that raising concerns about Indian democracy must also enter into diplomatic conversations.
In an interview to CNN, he said, “Part of my argument would be that 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. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting [into] those kinds of large internal conflicts.”
He made these remarks while acknowledging that he has worked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on climate change and other areas, and that issues of democracy also need to be discussed.
The former US president, who is in Athens, further said that meeting with dictators or other anti-democratic leaders is just one of the complex facets of the American presidency.
He told CNN: “Look, it’s complicated. The president of the United States has a lot of equities. And when I was president, I would deal with figures in some cases who were allies, who, you know, if you pressed me in private, do they run their governments and their political parties in ways that I would say are ideally democratic? I’d have to say no.”
“You had to do business with them, because they’re important for national security reasons. There are, you know, a range of economic interests,” Obama said, citing his work with Chinese President Xi Jinping on climate change as an example of finding common interests, even with leaders with poor human rights records.
“I do think that it is appropriate for the president of the United States, where he or she can, to uphold those principles and to challenge – whether behind closed doors or in public – trends that are troubling. And so I’m less concerned about labels than I’m concerned about specific practices,” he added.
The comments come hours before Modi meets US President Joe Biden, who has hosted a private dinner for him at the White House.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told AlJazeera that while Biden is expected to bring up US concerns about democratic backsliding and attacks on Muslims and other minorities in India, he will not lecture Modi on the subject.
From using the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to jailing journalists and activists to staying silent after the country’s top wrestlers alleged sexual harassment against an influential ruling party MP, the nearly ten years of Modi era have been marred by India’s deteriorating human rights record.
Politicians, human rights and civil society organisations, and journalists and media bodies have criticised the sharp decline in the press freedom, saying the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government is misusing laws to suppress dissent.
Apart from the decline in press freedom, significant human rights issues include reported targeting of religious minorities, extrajudicial killings, inhuman treatment or punishment by police and prison officials, etc.
The International Press Institute has called on Biden to raise press freedom issues in India with Modi, saying that the “weaponisation of the law against critical journalists has also become increasingly common” under his regime.