- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

President Trump refused to be drawn into a public debate Tuesday over a new citizenship law in India that sparked deadly protests during his visit, saying only that he discussed religious freedom at length in private with his host and friend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At a press conference in New Delhi before wrapping up his two-day visit, Mr. Trump said he didn’t want to discuss the divisive measure that provides fast-track naturalization for many foreign-born religious minorities but not India’s Muslims. Critics describe the law as a religious citizenship test and an escalation of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

At least 113 people have been killed, including a police officer, and more than 150 were injured in protests over the law since the weekend, officials said. News reports described mobs of Hindus armed with pickaxes and iron rods and groups of Muslims throwing rocks in the Indian capital while police struggled to keep the two camps separated. Both sides blamed the other for instigating the violence.

Rights groups had pressed Mr. Trump to raise the issue of the citizenship law during his two-day visit.

“I want to leave that to India, and hopefully they will make the right decision,” Mr. Trump told reporters.

Asked about the law and a rise of hate crimes in India against Muslims, the president said he did discuss those issues with Mr. Modi in a private meeting, while providing few details.

“We did discuss that, and specifically Muslims,” Mr. Trump said. “We also discussed Christians. And I had a very powerful answer from the prime minister. We talked about religious liberty for a long period of time, in front of a lot of people.”

Mr. Trump suggested that a rapid rise in India’s Muslim population is contributing to tensions, saying Mr. Modi told him there are 200 million Muslims in the country now, compared with about 14 million “a fairly short while ago.”

“He said they’re working very closely with the Muslim community,” Mr. Trump said.

But the citizenship law follows on a move by the Modi government to change the constitutional status of the divided province of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region and a flash point for conflict with neighboring Pakistan for decades.

G. Kishan Reddy, junior home minister in Mr. Modi’s Cabinet, told the ANI news agency this week that the violence was “a conspiracy [by Muslims] to defame India” during Mr. Trump’s highly anticipated visit.

Mr. Trump’s own travel ban has targeted countries with majority-Muslim populations, but he said the ban “is not a thing against Muslims.”

“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,” he said.

Concluding a trip that mixed pageantry and business, Mr. Trump said he was hopeful that the two nations are getting closer to completing a major trade deal. But despite talks by aides in recent weeks that a deal could be near, the president had no agreements to announce on lowering tariffs on Indian steel or U.S. agricultural products in the interim.

“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,” Mr. Trump said. If a deal happens, it will likely be “towards the end of the year,” he said.

The president was greeted on Tuesday with an elaborate welcome ceremony at the grand Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in New Delhi. Cannons fired as the president’s armored car rolled through the palace gates accompanied by red-uniformed guards on horseback. The ceremony included hundreds of military officials marching with instruments and swords.

Later, Mr. Trump and first lady Melania Trump participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi in New Delhi at the site where the famed Indian independence leader was cremated after his assassination in January 1948.

“The last two days were amazing in every sense of the word,” Mr. Trump said, describing the trip as “unforgettable,” “extraordinary” and an expression of “love.”

At a meeting with Indian business leaders, the president addressed his reelection bid back home, cautioning that “if the wrong person gets elected, everything will come to a halt” and unemployment will soar.

— This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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