India may start “pulling apart” if the government does not protect the rights of its ethnic minorities, former United States President Barack Obama said on Friday, according to CNN.

Obama made the statement at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the United States for a three-day state visit. Earlier in the day, he met United States President Joe Biden at the White House.

In an interview with CNN, Obama said that if a US president meets with Modi, the “protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India” is worth mentioning.

The former US president added: “If I had a conversation with Mr Modi – who I know well – part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts.”

Obama said that as president, he had worked with Modi on the Paris Accords on climate change. India is a signatory to the 2015 Paris Accord under which it has agreed to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of non-fossil fuel-based energy, among other things.

Obama recalled that when he was the president, he had to deal with several political leaders he didn’t agree with.

“The president of the United States has a lot of equities,” he said. “And when I was president, I would deal with figures in some cases who were allies, who, you know, if you pressed me in private, do they run their governments and their political parties in ways that I would say are ideally democratic? I’d have to say no.”

Over the past week, political leaders and human rights organisations have been urging Biden to raise concerns about democratic backsliding in India with Modi.

On Tuesday, 75 US Democratic Senators and members of the House of Representatives urged him to raise human rights issues with Modi.

Several lawmakers, including Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have also decided to boycott Modi’s address to the US Congress later on Thursday.

However, the White House has said that Biden will not lecture Modi on concerns about India’s democratic backsliding. “Ultimately, the question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians,” a senior White House official said on Wednesday. “It’s not going to be determined by the United States.”

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