Obama Invites Indian Leader to Dinner While He Is Observing Religious Fast

Administration under fire for perceived insensitivity to Hindu traditions

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi / AP
September 29, 2014

The Obama administration was grilled on Monday for inviting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a state dinner while he is fasting as part of a Hindu religious observance, a move that has been criticized by some as insensitive.

Obama will host Modi Monday evening at the White House "for a private dinner" that will also be attended by Vice President Joe Biden, the White House announced Monday morning. The event is closed to the press.

However, the administration appears to have forgotten that Modi is in the middle of carrying out a religious fast in observance of the Hindu navratri, in which the faithful abstain from food, according to reports.

The administration’s seeming insensitivity to Modi’s religious observance caused a tense back-and-forth during the State Department’s daily briefing with reporters.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki was forced to defend the decision to hold the dinner on the holy day.

"I’m just wondering if anyone thought it was really that much of a good idea to host and dinner and lunch for the visiting president who is the middle of a fast," asked Associated Press reporter Matt Lee.

"We certainly understand that and recognize it and respect it, his fast. It’s a way of honoring an individual," Psaki responding.

"Are these people going to be actually eating in front of him?" Lee followed up.

"I don’t have the menu in front of me, Matt," Psaki said.

Lee explained that the optics could be offensive.

"So he’s going to be sitting there drinking his water or lemon flavored water and everyone else is going to be chowing down on a four course meal in front on him?" the reporter asked.

"We can check and see what the menu is if it’s of interest to you," Psaki replied.

"Is there actually going to be food served?" pressed Lee. "It seems a little impolite if someone can’t eat because they’re doing a religious [fast]. You wouldn’t invite a practicing Muslim to lunch in the Middle of Ramadan would you?"

"It seems kind of odd they would choose an event and then a lunch with someone who can’t eat," Lee said.

Psaki responded that the overarching goal of the meals are to "to honor the visit" by Modi.

Modi has been engaged in a prominent diplomatic tour since arriving in the United States earlier this month.

He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, in a meeting that generated multiple agreements on a range of economic and security fronts, according to announcements by both governments.