The honeyed words, the constant hugs, the photo-ops on the magnificent lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the sartorial elegance of the prime minister receded into the background as President Barack Obama delivered his parting shot in an address to young people at Siri Fort auditorium. And a great deal of what he said will not sit easily with many supporters of the BJP.
The significance of Obama's words on religious tolerance could not have been lost on the government of prime minister Narendra Modi. "Every person has the right to practise their religion and beliefs and not practise it if they choose so without any persecution. No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often, religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts," Obama said. He also said that India would succeed as long as it was not splintered on religious lines.
Taking his own example as the benchmark, he spoke of religious intolerance and misunderstandings and about his deep Christian faith.
This signal could not have been more clear: the US expects India to observe religious rights, something which has been in short supply ever since the NDA government assumed office. There have been ugly remarks about Muslims with a minister going as far as to say that India needed Ramzadons and not Haramzadons . There have been subtle and overt remarks about the patriotism or lack of it of the Muslim community. There have been many attempts to sideline the concerns of the Muslims. Attacks on churches have taken place right in the capital. And the reconversion issue has taken on a life of its own.
The rationale behind this ghar wapsi movement on which some in government would like a law to be brought about is that people have strayed from the Hindu faith thanks to the inducements of Christian missionaries. All they needed, apparently, was a little push to realise their wayward conduct and return home. The fact that they are often coerced to do so has been deliberately overlooked.
Now, the explanation for this is that it is the loony fringe, the extreme right-wing Hindutva types like the VHP and Bajranj Dal who are engaging in this behaviour. But, the duty of the state is to prevent them from encroaching on religious freedoms. A word against all this from a powerful prime minister should stop these people in their tracks. But he has been unusually silent for one so vocal on all issues.
The minorities in India are feeling threatened as never before. As the government of a secular state, it should crack down on these people who are giving India a bad name by pursuing some kind of homogenous Hindu culture. India's greatness, as underlined by Obama, lies in its diverse castes and creeds. Simply put, India cannot be contained by a cookie cutter culture.
The notes of caution from Obama will throw a bit of cold water on the warmth of the friendship in which the prime minister has displayed a personal interest. If we are to be taken seriously as a great democracy and equal partner of the US, we have to ensure that there is no discrimination along religious or any other lines. We must set our house in order. And not just for the benefit of the US but for our own survival as society. Obama also raised the issue of women's rights on which India has not covered itself in glory. It is clear that Obama feels very strongly on the issue of persecution of minorities, himself having been a victim in his long struggle to the top.
Obama's message was--we want you as our partner in trade, our people to people contact is excellent but we are not unaware of your less than inclusive policy when it comes of religious minorities and women. A welcome course correction in the over-the-top hugfest that the media has highlighted so far.