The White House on Monday lambasted the online harassment faced by a reporter who questioned Indian prime minister Narendra Modi about the human rights issue during his press conference in Washington.
“It’s completely unacceptable and it’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that … were on display last week during the state visit,” said National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also underlined Mr Kirby’s message saying: “We’re committed to the freedom of the press, which is why we had the press conference last week.”
“We certainly condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of any journalist that is trying to do their job,” she added.
Sabrina Siddiqui, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, asked on 22 June what steps Mr Modi and his government would be willing to take “to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities … and to uphold free speech” in India.
Mr Modi, who does not often interact with reporters and has not held a single press conference since becoming prime minister in 2014, defended his administration by saying “democracy runs in our veins” and insisted that there is ”absolutely no space for discrimination”.
Responding in Hindi, Mr Modi said: “Our government has taken the basic principles of democracy and on that basis our constitution is made and the entire country runs on that … we have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender, there’s absolutely no space for discrimination.”
Democracy cannot exist without “human values,” “human rights,” and “humanity,” said Mr Modi as he reiterated that there is “no space” for discrimination for those living in a democracy.
“In India, the benefits that are provided by the government is accessible to all, whoever deserves those benefits is available to everybody. And that is why in India’s democratic values, there’s absolutely no discrimination, neither on basis of caste, creed, or age or any kind of geographic location,” he said.
However, since the press conference, Siddiqui has been subjected to online harassment with attacks highlighting her Muslim heritage, connecting her to Pakistan.
The reporter was forced to issue a clarification as she shared photos of herself wearing an Indian cricket team shirt and another photo of her and her father watching India win the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
“Since some have chosen to make a point of my personal background, it feels only right to provide a fuller picture,” she wrote on Twitter. “Sometimes identities are more complex than they seem.”
Former US president Barack Obama also received backlash from Indian ministers after he called on Mr Modi to do more to protect India’s Muslim minority population.
“Perhaps six Muslim-dominated countries were bombed due to [Mr Obama]. More than 26,000 bombs were dropped – from Syria and Yemen to Saudi [Arabia] and Iraq,” finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman told a press conference in New Delhi. “Why would anyone listen to any allegations from such people?”
“It was surprising that when the PM [Modi] was visiting the US, a former US president was making a statement on Indian Muslims,” she added.
The remarks came after Mr Obama told CNN that the issue of the “protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India” was worth raising.
Without such protection, he said, there was “a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart”.
The finance minister is not the only BJP leader to hit back at Mr Obama. Senior party leader, chief minister of the northeastern state of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said there are many “Hussain Obama in India” and his priority will be to deal with them,
His comments came in reaction to a tweet by an Indian journalist who asked if the Assam police will go to the US to arrest the former US president.
“Has an FIR been filed in Guwahati yet against Obama for hurting sentiment? Is Assam police on its way to Washington to get Obama offloaded from some flight and arrest him?” asked journalist Rohini Singh.
“There are many Hussain Obama in India itself. We should prioritize taking care of them before considering going to Washington. The Assam police will act according to our own priorities,” the BJP leader responded.