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Obama’s cautionary advise to India on religious freedom

US President Barack Obama today somewhat tempered the euphoria that has surrounded his successful three day state visit to India by reminding Indians that it wasn’t just the job of their government, but each of them to protect religious freedom.

Obama, speaking at his ‘town hall’ event at the end of his visit today morning, said India will succeed if it isn’t “splintered” on religious lines. The American President said religious freedom was a foundational value of the Indian Constitution, a tenet that their father of the nation, and his hero, Mahatma Gandhi held dear. The US President’s parting message could irk the larger Sangh Parivar. Some of its affiliates, like the Vishva Hindu Parishad, have carried a campaign of ‘ghar wapsi’ and against religious conversion in recent months.

The US President told a gathering of around 2000 people during his speech at the Siri Fort Auditorium in south Delhi how America can be New Delhi’s “best partner”. He said India needed to do more on climate change, the benefits of “clean” nuclear power and how their countries could work to ensure freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific region. He spoke of closer economic ties and cooperation in the field of technology between the two countries, and how they were similar as democracies whose strength was diversity.

Obama remembered not only Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior as those who have influenced him greatly, but also the visit by Swami Vivekananda to his hometown Chicago in 1893. He said Vivekananda brought Hinduism and yoga to America. The American president laid great stress on education of women, in a sense echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ campaign.

It was to thunderous applause that Obama reiterated that the US supported India’s aspiration to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). He regaled his audience with a smattering of Hindi – beginning his speech with a “namaste” and “dhanyavaad”, and even interspersing with a line from Shah Rukh Khan starrer Dilwale Dulhaniya Le.

“Senorita, bade bade deshon mein…you know what I mean,” he said while talking of his wife Michelle and his doing Bhangra at the White House or dancing with school children during their last visit to India in November 2010, but not getting any opportunity to show their dancing skills on their current visit. He ended his speech with a resounding Jai Hind.

But a significant portion of the nearly hour long speech was devoted to the need to protect diversity and religious freedom. He said both India and the US have Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs and people of other religious denominations. The audience, many of them university students, listened with rapt attention as Obama reminded them of Gandhi’s words on religious freedom – “we are all beautiful flowers of the same garden, branches of the same majestic tree.”

The US President quoted form Article 25 of the Constitution of India that guarantees citizens the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion. Obama said his wife Michelle, who was sat among the audience with the son of a wage labourer the two had met at Humayun’s Tomb during their 2010 visit, were “strengthened” by their Christian faith. Obama alluded to people in the US having alleged that he was Muslim, stating that at times his faith has been “questioned”. He said no society was “immune to darkest impulses of man” and “religion has been used to guide” these dark impulses.

Obama He said it was important that the “foundational value” of religious freedom was upheld in India than anywhere else in the world. He said India will not succeed if it was “splintered” on the lines of religious faith, and both the US and India should “guard against” any efforts to divide them on religious lines. Obama said it wasn’t nuclear weapons and economic might but respect for human values that made a country strong. The American President said Indians take pride, and rightly so, in their icons like actor Shah Rukh Khan, yesteryears sprinter Milkha Singh and boxer M C Mary Kom.

Obama said the sight of the US president as the chief guest at the Republic Day would have seen unimaginable till some years back but that it has happened shows the possibility of the relationship and his own commitment to to the relationship. He spoke of the three million proud Indian Americans and how the US can be “India’s best partner”, but it was for Indians to decide. He said Prime Minister Modi and he have started working on the relationship “anew” that could give India advanced technology, American partnership in the health sector, to design smart cities, in building infrastructure, etc. Obama spoke of US welcoming to play a greater role in the Asia Pacific region, and at the UNSC but reminded that “with great power come great responsibility”, pointing out Myanmar and Sri Lanka where New Delhi could do more.

Activist and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi had been specially invited for the speech, and Obama acknowledged his contribution in dealing with issues of child trafficking. He said India and US needed to work together to end this “scourge of modern day slavery”, and also to mitigate the impact of climate change. He acknowledged that the US had contributed more to climate change and was cutting down its emissions, but called upon India to step up its efforts in its own interests as it was likely to be impacted by climate change with rising sea levels and melting Himalayan glaciers.

The US President also spoke at some length about growing inequality in both the US and India, and the need to give everyone equal opportunity. He said how Martin Luther King was introduced as a “fellow untouchable” during his visit to India in the late 1950s. Obama said his grandfather was a cook in the British Army in Kenya, and when Michelle and he were born many blacks didn’t have voting rights in the US and that he himself has faced discrimination in his life because of the colour of his skin.

Obama said neither he nor his wife came either from a famous family or wealthy background, but did well thanks to support from teachers and got scholarships. It was significant, Obama said, that the grandson of a cook could become the president of the US or a dalit (B R Ambedkar) help write the constitution or a tea seller (Modi) can become the PM.

Later in the evening, Obama and Modi’s recorded ‘Man ki Baat’ will be broadcasted from All India Radio.

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