Millennium Post

Obama’s reminder to Indian polity

US president Barack Obama’s farewell shot to India, after his three-day visit this week, was marked by his cautious reference to the right to conscience protected by the Indian Constitution. He noted that it was important for India, with its multiplicity of faiths, to uphold this fundamental right. In short Obama’s thrust was that India will succeed as long as it is not splintered along religious lines.

The visiting US president made this point at the only meeting where he was not accompanied by the Prime Minister Modi or any other ministers from the Indian government. He made his remarks on religious tolerance at an interaction with about 1500 people from various walks of life. Eyebrows were raised at this reference to religion amidst all the bonhomie, with some wondering if it was a snub to  fringe elements in the BJP. Calling it a “tough love”, the New York Times said,  “Mr. Obama’s speech was aimed partly at his newfound friend, Prime Minister Modi, who has been criticized for not doing more to protect political dissent and to guard against sectarian discrimination and conflict. While the two shared a warm visit, Mr. Obama in effect was saying that their developing partnership did not mean Mr. Modi would get a free pass.”

Was Obama’s nudge an off the cuff remark or did the US President make a well -considered and calculated observation, when he raised the question of religious tolerance? Any one who understands the American way of doing things would vouch for the fact that president’s visits are always planned  months in advance and generally not a word is meant to be out of place. Therefore is it safe to assume that Obama had chosen his farewell speech to make one or two points, which may not have been music to the ears of the ruling party in India?

Secondly, Obama, like many other articulate and intelligent world leaders, was also perhaps addressing his own constituency in the United States. After all, this is what most leaders do. Obama too did not miss an opportunity to send a clear message back home.

One must understand the context, as Obama’s comments come at a time when the Modi-led government is facing criticism for not doing enough to protect religious minorities. Not very long ago, Modi was persona non-grata in the US for his failure to stop anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat.  

Thirdly, it is also a message to minorities, particularly the Christians in India and America. One has to remember that when the Christian missionary Staines was burnt alive in Odisha some years ago, US authorities had expressed grave concern to the then Vajpayee government. In recent times, images of a fire at the Roman Catholic Saint Sebastian’s Church in New Delhi or accounts from Asroi in Uttar Pradesh of a torn cross on a church wall had been played up by the media in America’s south, which is deeply Christian.

The mass conversion controversy in India also has not gone unnoticed among government officials in Washington D.C. There were also reports that many Christian groups expected Obama to voice his concern during the visit. No one in the Obama government has publicly addressed the attacks on religious minorities so far. When the US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Gujarat last month for an investor summit, there were hopes — among Christian groups that he might make a statement on the subject. However, that too did not materialize. US officials were also concerned before the visit that religious issues should not distract them from pursuing the larger goal of strengthening economic and defense ties and consummating the civil-nuclear deal, besides reaching an agreement on climate change and energy.

In this context, Obama’s reference to his own religion is quite significant. “In our lives, Michelle [Obama] and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith,” Obama said. “Still, as you may know, my faith has at times been questioned — by people who don’t know me — or they’ve said that I adhere to a different religion, as if that were somehow a bad thing.”

Expressing political overtones about these remarks, many in the Congress claimed that during meeting with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Obama had mentioned the growing religious divide in India, since the induction of a BJP-led government in India. The BJP had played down the president’s observations and slammed the Congress and other opposition parties for reading too much into these remarks.  One has to wait and see how Prime Minister Modi deciphers Obama’s parting shot. “In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person,” Obama said. IPA
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