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6/23/2023 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never held a solo press conference in nearly ten years in office. When he receives press questions, he often defers to a junior official, preferring to deliver preplanned remarks himself. His time in office has seen a significant decline in press freedom in India. In Washington, D.C. this week for an official state visit, Modi broke his usual pattern and took two questions from reporters at a press conference Thursday, including one from the Wall Street Journal on human rights.

“Democracy is in our DNA,” said Modi in response. “We have always proved that democracy can deliver, and when I say deliver this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, or gender. There is absolutely no space for discrimination [in India] … this is our foundational principle.”

Under a decades-old law, Christian and Muslim Indians from low caste backgrounds are barred from receiving government benefits otherwise available to them if they were Hindus. This presents a significant barrier to conversion as many individuals depend on these benefits for their survival. In Thursday’s press conference Modi denied this fact. “The benefits provided by the government are accessible to all,” he claimed, “those benefits are available to everybody. In India’s democratic values there is absolutely no discrimination on the basis of caste or creed.”

In contrast to Modi’s claim that persecution does not exist in India, the U.S. Department of State recently reported earlier this year that “attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states [across India] throughout the year.” Further, the report discussed the issue of state-level laws which criminalize minority religious activity and highlighted “numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states.”

In May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also raised concerns about persecution in India, saying that religious freedom conditions “continued to worsen” in the last year and recommending that the U.S. designate India as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In his time as Prime Minister, Modi has overseen a sharp increase in religious violence across the country. In 2014, the year Modi took office, there were 144 recorded incidents of religious violence according to civil society leaders in India. In 2022, there were over 600 incidents and 2023 is trending similarly. Many states have also enacted anti-conversion laws since 2014, statutes that criminalize most minority religious activity and embolden mobs to attack peaceful Christian and Muslim gatherings.

Modi himself was previously banned from entering the U.S. for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots which left over 2,000 Muslims dead. The Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, Modi’s public comments and failure to stop the riots led to massive religious violence against Gujarati Muslims. In 2005, the U.S. Department of State determined that his actions amounted to a severe violation of religious freedom, triggering the only known use of the International Religious Freedom Act to sanction a foreign official.

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