SHAFAQNA- If India’s Hindu revivalist government thought it had co-opted an American president with the promise of strategic alliances and he would turn a blind eye to their sectarian agenda at home they were in for a shock on Tuesday as US President Barrack Obama left after a three-day visit with a resounding parting shot: religious intolerance will stall India’s progress and wreck its democracy.
In a “town hall” address to India’s youth, when he was unencumbered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s compulsive hugs and smothering handshakes, Mr Obama urged Indians to follow the path of social justice and political inclusion prescribed by Martin Luther King Jr and his inspiration in many ways, Mahatma Gandhi.
Speaking up for women’s empowerment and gender equality and urging Indians to respect the sexual orientation of individuals, Mr Obama shone the light on the promise made for liberty by the founding fathers of Indian and American democracies.
“We may have our different histories and speak different languages, but when we look at each other, we see a reflection of ourselves,” Mr Obama said. “Having thrown off colonialism, we created constitutions that began with the same three words — ‘we the people’.”
America wants to be India’s partner in igniting the next wave of India’s growth.
“As India pursues more trade and investment, we want to be first in line.” His country was ready to join India in building new infrastructure — the roads and the airports, the ports, the bullet trains to propel India into the future, he said.
All this progress, however, was predicated on a socially inclusive polity. “That’s what makes us world leaders — not just the size of our economy or the number of weapons we have, but our ability to show the way in how we work together, and how much respect we show each other,” the president said, a day after watching India’s military arsenal at the Republic Day parade.
“Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children — all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love. Across our two great countries we have Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, and Jews and Buddhists and Jains and so many faiths.”
Freedom of religion is written into the founding documents of the two democracies.
“It’s part of America’s very first amendment. Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”
Mr Obama could not be unaware that Mr Modi’s government is pondering a law to limit the precise right to conversion.
“In both our countries — in all countries — upholding this fundamental freedom (to propagate one’s faith) is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person,” Mr Obama reminded his hosts.
The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts. “Nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld,” Mr Obama said. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith — so long as it’s not splintered along any lines — and is unified as one nation.”
He recalled how he and his wife Michelle had been strengthened by their Christian faith. “But there have been times where my faith has 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.” Churches have been at the receiving end of ‘majoritarian zealotry’ in India.
The world has seen intolerance and violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing up for their faith, but, in fact, are betraying it. “No society is immune from the darkest impulses of man. And too often religion has been used to tap into those darker impulses as opposed to the light of God.”
Mr Obama named three Indian celebrities of different faiths — Shahrukh Khan, a Muslim movie actor, Milkha Singh, a Sikh athlete, and Mary Kom, a Christian pugilist from India’s north-eastern tribal belt — to emphasise the majesty of India’s social diversity.
He, however, stopped short of reminding his audience that all the three minority communities had suffered at some point at the hands of Hindu supremacists.