Trump defends Modi but doesn't take position on controversial Indian citizenship law

NEW DELHI – President Donald Trump concluded his first official trip to India on Tuesday without taking a firm stance on a controversial new citizenship law hanging over Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, one that sparked street clashes and left at least 10 people dead in India's capital during Trump's 36-hour visit.

The president defended Modi’s government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, saying it "worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom," though critics say the law discriminates against Muslims.

"We did talk about religious freedom. And I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me: He wants people to have religious freedom," Trump said at a news conference Tuesday.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) offers fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries.

The deadly clashes broke out Sunday in Muslim-majority neighborhoods in northeast Delhi.

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Trump said he was leaving it up to Modi to resolve the violence. The prime minister was absent from the news conference, though he joined Trump for another one later in the day.

"I don't want to discuss that, I want to leave that to India," Trump said when asked about his stance on the law. "And hopefully, they’re going to make the right decision for the people."

Modi has faced criticism over policies such as revoking the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir’s special autonomy. India tightened its grip on Kashmir by imposing a media blackout and jailing political dissenters.

A bipartisan group of senators wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this month to voice their concerns over Modi’s policies, including the CAA.

Trump lashed out at Democrats and two Supreme Court judges despite promising not to be "controversial" during the news conference. He said he didn't want to overshadow the "fantastic two days" he spent in India and wanted to be "conservative" in his answers.

Trump's whirlwind visit spanned three cities and included an elaborate welcome tour that featured a massive rally at the world's biggest cricket stadium and a sunset tour of the famously marbled Taj Mahal.

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tour the Taj Mahal (the original) on Feb. 24.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tour the Taj Mahal (the original) on Feb. 24.

On the second day of his diplomatic sprint, Trump began with a formal welcome ceremony at the regal Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace, where he was escorted by red-uniformed guards on horseback as cannons signaled the arrival of his armored car, known as "the Beast."

He conducted a series of meetings with Modi and other government officials, as well as Indian business executives whom he hopes to convince to invest more in the USA.

In a joint statement Tuesday afternoon, Trump praised Modi for the colorful welcome and said he was "awed by the majesty of India," declaring the U.S. special relationship with India "has never been as good as it is right now."

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The president said he remained "optimistic" about inking an elusive trade agreement with India, the world's fifth-biggest economy, despite differences that have stalled negotiations.

Trump said his "productive visit" elicited more modest agreements, including the announcement that Exxon Mobil signed a deal to improve India's natural gas distribution network. The two leaders said they reached nonbinding agreements on mental health and drug products. Trump touted a $3.5 billion deal that India signed for military equipment, including naval helicopters.

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The president said he wants the United States to be India's premier defense partner, but Russia is India's biggest arms supplier. New Delhi agreed to purchase Moscow's S-400 missile defense system, a move that prompted U.S. threats of sanctions.

The president and first lady will wrap up their trip with a state banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the largely ceremonial president of India, before boarding Air Force One for an overnight flight back to Washington.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump in India doesn't take position on CAA citizenship law