But he said that India was also “a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs.
US President Barack Obama was trying to tell India that “freedom of religion is a fundamental freedom,” said the US State Department while clarifying Washington’s position on the latest dispute between the two democracies.
President Obama said at an annual prayer breakfast in Washington earlier this week that he and First Lady Michelle Obama visited India last month and found it “an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity.”
But he said that India was also “a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs.”
Such “acts of intolerance,” he said, “would have shocked Gandhi Ji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”
His comments caused a bitter reaction in New Delhi and on Saturday, the Indian government responded with a sharp jibe.
Indian journalists raised the issue at the State Department news briefing, persuading deputy spokesperson Marie Harf to explain the US position on this dispute.
“Well, you heard the President speak about this when he was just there. This was part of his message during his trip to India and also part of his message at the National Prayer Breakfast,” she said.
President Obama’s message was that “freedom of religion is a fundamental freedom, that every nation is stronger when people of all faiths are free to practice their religion free from persecution and fear and discrimination,” she said.
Harf explained that the United States encouraged all governments around the world to “respect and ensure freedom of assembly for individuals who are worshipping or who are doing so for religious reasons, and that’s a universal right we think should be adhered to.”
President Obama made similar remarks in New Delhi late last month when he visited the Indian capital to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations.
“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines,” he said on the last day of his visit to India.
“Nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India.”
Meanwhile, Marie Harf said the United States had made it clear to India that it must take steps to improve relations with neighbouring countries.
She also said that the United States wanted to maintain strong relations with both India and Pakistan.
“We believe that India should have good relationships with its neighbours as well and take steps to improve those relationships,” said Harf.
“When it comes to our relationships in the region, look, we have relationships with India and with Pakistan. They’re both strong, they’re both vital to our strategic interests, and they both stand on their own,” Harf said.
“We will continue to work with both India and Pakistan to promote strategic stability, combat terrorism, and advance regional economic integration in South and Central Asia,” he said.