US President Barack Obama prodded India on Tuesday to uphold the religious freedom guaranteed by its founding fathers as he closed out his visit with a parting shot peppered with praise for the country and promises for cooperation.
The note of caution during his town hall-style address at Siri Fort auditorium came in the backdrop of a spate of hate speeches and religious conversion campaigns or “ghar wapsi” by radical Hindu groups after Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power last year.
Obama said no society is immune from man's darkest impulses, as he raised the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that killed six people.
“Every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination,” he told a largely young audience of over 1,500.
This capped his three-day tour steeped in symbolism, which produced few substantive policy announcements other than removing hurdles in the civilian nuclear deal and defence cooperation.
Obama cited the promise of freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
“Nowhere is that more important than India, nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith, along lines of anything, and is unified as one nation.”
Drawing on his own experience as a minority in America, he said it is diversity that makes the US and India world leaders and not the size of the economy and weapons they have. “We have to guard against any effort to divide us on sectarian lines.”
The President worked the crowd as he sprinkled his speech with a smattering of Hindi and references to Shah Rukh Khan, Milkha Singh, Mary Kom and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to illustrate his points on gender equality and diversity.
He said India and the US were not just “natural allies” but could be “best partners”.
He evoked the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and his impact on the US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr, also mentioning another great Indian in Swami Vivekanand. Recalling Vivekananda’s Chicago address more than a century ago, Obama said he “brought Hinduism and yoga to the US”.
He addressed the crowd twice as “sisters and brothers” — borrowing Vivekananda’s opening words from his Chicago speech.
He supported India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, but reminded the position entails responsibilities.
He nudged the country to do its bit to combat climate change. “Even if countries like the US curb emissions, if countries growing rapidly like India don’t use cleaner fuel, there’s no chance…,” he said.
Obama listed the similarities between the US and India: both had fought colonialism, boasted hi-tech hubs, had gone to the moon and mars, had built large middle classes, calling for an enhanced partnership for more jobs and to make the world a better place.
Recalling how King Jr was introduced to schoolchildren in India as a “fellow untouchable”, he said individual dignity should be upheld all the time. “Their hopes are just as worthy as ours. The grandson of a cook can become President, a Dalit can write a Constitution and a tea-seller can become Prime Minister. Let everybody have a chance,” he said, referring to himself, BR Ambedkar and Narendra Modi.