In an interview, Mr. Obama expressed concerns that if the rights of minority groups were not safeguarded, India might experience internal divisions.
The ex-president was responding to a question about how current President Joe Biden should approach “authoritarian leaders.”
During Mr. Obama’s statement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the United States on a state visit. The visit included a warm reception at the White House, an extravagant state dinner, and the signing of binding agreements.
Additionally, Prime Minister Modi addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
However, Mr. Obama’s remarks, made in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour before the Congress address, received extensive coverage in India.
Ms. Amanpour referred to the “threat to democracy” posed by so-called “undemocratic leaders” before mentioning Prime Minister Modi in that category.
She asked, “How should a president engage with such leaders, whether by calling them out or dealing with them?”
Mr. Obama responded by describing the situation as “complex” and drawing from his experiences of engaging with allies who may not govern in an “ideally democratic” manner but with whom relations needed to be maintained for various reasons.
He further stated that it was “appropriate” for the U.S. president to address “troubling trends” publicly or privately whenever possible.
The former U.S. president added, “If the president were to meet with Prime Minister Modi, it would be worth mentioning the protection of the Muslim minority in a predominantly Hindu India.”
He continued, “In a conversation with Prime Minister Modi, whom I know well, I would argue that if the rights of ethnic minorities in India are not safeguarded, there is a strong possibility that India may face internal divisions.”
However, leaders from India’s ruling party strongly criticized Mr. Obama for his remarks.
Nirmala Sitharaman, the Indian finance minister and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expressed shock at Mr. Obama’s comments.
“While Mr. Modi was promoting India during his visit to the U.S., a former U.S. president was discussing Indian Muslims,” Ms. Sitharaman remarked.
She also highlighted that the U.S. had conducted military operations in Muslim-majority countries like Syria and Yemen during Mr. Obama’s tenure.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh also responded, emphasizing that India has never discriminated against individuals based on religion.
“Those commenting on minority rights in India should also consider the number of Muslim countries they have attacked,” Mr. Rajnath stated.
Neither Mr. Obama nor the U.S. government has issued public statements regarding these comments.
During a joint conference attended by President Biden and Prime Minister Modi, the latter asserted that his government does not tolerate discrimination in response to a question about the rights of Muslims and other minority groups in India.