Responding to a question on rights of Muslims and other minorities in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said that a country cannot be called a democracy in the absence of human rights.

The prime minister made the remarks while taking questions at a rare press conference with United States President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington.

At the press conference, a journalist pointed out that several human rights groups have accused the Modi government of discriminating against religious minorities and taking actions to silence its critics.

“What steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?” the journalist asked.

In response, Modi said that India has showed that democracy could deliver. “And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion or gender,” the prime minister added. “There is absolutely no space for discrimination...And when you talk of democracy, if there are no human values and there is no humanity, there are no human rights, then it’s not a democracy.”

Modi’s statement came hours after former United States President Barack Obama said in an interview that India may start “pulling apart” if the government does not protect the rights of its ethnic minorities. He added that in a meeting between a US president and Modi, the “protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India” was worth a mention.

Modi is in the United States on a three-day visit, starting June 21. This is his sixth visit to the country as the prime minister but the first official state visit. Besides his meeting with Biden, Modi also addressed a joint sitting of the US Congress on Thursday.

Ahead of Biden’s meeting with Modi, seventy-five senators and members of the House of Representatives had urged the US president to raise matters related to human rights with the Indian prime minister during his visit to Washington.

Senator Bernie Sanders had also accused the Modi government of cracking down on the press and civil society, jailing political opponents and “pushing an aggressive Hindu nationalism that leaves little space for India’s religious minorities”.

On Thursday, at least six Democrats – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Summer Lee – boycotted Modi’s address at the US Congress.

The US president was also asked about the boycott by his own party members who have alleged that the Biden administration was overlooking the targeting of religious minorities and a crackdown on dissent in India.

To this, Biden said that he had a “good discussion” about democratic values with the Indian prime minister. “...That’s the nature of our relationship: We’re straightforward with each other, and – and we respect each other,” Biden said. “...It’s a common democratic character of both our countries and our people – our diversity, our culture, our open, tolerant, robust debate.”