NEW DELHI - President Donald Trump commended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “working very hard on religious freedom” and refused to discuss a controversial new citizenship law that set off protests across the country, saying the matter was “really up to India.”
Trump's comments came amid the deadliest outbreak of communal violence in India's capital in decades. At least 13 people were killed in Delhi on Monday and Tuesday when clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims in the northeastern part of the city.
The violence was triggered by a confrontation between Hindu supporters of the citizenship law and mostly Muslim opponents. People threw stones, set fire to buildings and attacked journalists with police unwilling or unable to intervene. Critics of the citizenship law say it is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The rest of the city continued as normal, and Trump went ahead with his scheduled meetings, which took place about 10 miles away from where the violence was unfolding.
On Tuesday, Modi and Trump once again praised each other. Trump said he had a "really great relationship" with the Indian leader, whom he called "incredible," "very calm," "very strong" and "very tough" in a solo news conference later in the day. (Modi is notorious for not having held a news conference in his six years as prime minister.)
One outcome of the friendship between the two men: Trump declined to engage in anything that might be construed as criticism of Modi or his government, except on the issue of trade. The Modi government has made large strides in recent months toward its agenda of emphasizing Hindu primacy in India.
Trump was particularly enthusiastic about the welcome extended to him a day earlier in the western city of Ahmedabad, where 100,000 people attended a rally with the two leaders. "Somebody said it was the greatest greeting ever given to any head of state by any country," Trump told reporters, without providing details.
But the praise could not mask the fact that Trump's 36-hour visit was long on symbolism and short on substance. A much-discussed deal to resolve long-standing differences over trade remains elusive. The Indian government released a list of three paltry agreements concluded during the visit: joint memorandums on mental health and medical-device safety, plus a letter of cooperation between energy companies.
The prospects for partnership remain promising in the security realm, where the United States and India are looking to counter a rising China. While in India, Trump announced that the two countries were moving ahead with a $3 billion sale of American military equipment including maritime helicopters.
Trump spent Tuesday in meetings with Modi and other Indian leaders. He also attended a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy with Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs, where he claimed he had attracted record investment to the United States and rejuvenated moribund sectors of the economy.
Earlier in the day, he received a grand ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the resident of India's president, and visited a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi. Trump was scheduled to attend a state dinner before beginning his trip home Tuesday night.
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The Washington Post’s Niha Masih and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.