Barack Obama’s comment on ‘religious intolerance in India’ was unwarranted

By Manisha Singh | Last Updated: Feb 10, 2015, 09:47 AM IST

A section of people in India suffer from a certain kind of affliction. It really does not have a name but it is basically this — anything that the West says, especially the United States, becomes gospel truth for them. They are, to put it blatantly, ‘star struck’ with the West.

So, when the President of the United States, Barack Obama, supposedly ‘the most powerful person in the world’ said at the annual National Prayer Breakfast that “India is a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs - acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation,” predictably, a certain section of our society, jumped at his comment. Amongst the most vocal were the political opponents of BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In what was unbecoming of the Congress party, leaders after leaders said that Obama’s comments were a reflection of the kind of image that the Modi government was sending out to the world and that ‘intolerance was intrinsic in the BJP’. Others too joined in like the JD(U) and RJD, with someone like National Conference leader Omar Abdullah taking a dig at supposed Modi-Obama friendship, which was simply in poor taste.

The comments were unbecoming and in poor taste because there are times when one has to put politics behind and put up the image of being one nation. It would have been much more graceful of the Congress and other political parties if they had rallied behind their PM and told Obama - Thank you very much, we do not need you to preach us or give us any message, we can deal with our problems ourselves.

Who says that India, with its huge cultural and religious diversity, does not have problems? Who says that the attacks on churches in Delhi and elsewhere are not to be condemned? Who says that we are a perfect society or country? We are not. We have our demons and we’ll deal with them, as we must, but we’ll not allow anyone, however powerful, to intrude in our personal space.

Also, India is not like Pakistan where reports of minorities being persecuted are common. The sweeping comments of the US President of religious intolerance in India do not gel with the fact that our country has always tried to uphold the tenets of democratic principles and here, we have the kind of freedom to profess our religion or express our opinion, which is not existent in many countries of the world.

As for Obama, there are those who will say that if he talked about religious intolerance in India, he also took on his own faith and said that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” That’s alright. He can talk about his own faith in his own country but that does not justify his comments on us, especially given the fact that he also talked about the Islamic State and Islamist militants who perpetuated heinous and unspeakable violence in the name of religion in the same breath.

There are times that a political leader has to pander to certain sections of the society. So who knows maybe Obama’s statement had to do with certain domestic compulsions. One cannot help but agree with Spiritual Guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of the first to react to the US President’s comment that “isolated incidents does not mean that India is intolerant and that Obama should have met religious leaders while in India for better understanding.”

Sri Sri also touched a raw nerve when he wrote on Twitter – “It'll be interesting to see how American media and the government would respond if PM of India comments on the gun culture and Ferguson city issues.”

US may talk about equality and tolerance but the fact is that it is still grappling with racism and discrimination on basis of color. On August 28 last year, the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had slammed the United States for persistent racial and ethnic discrimination. The committee had found that minority communities in America are disproportionately disadvantaged in all areas of life whether education, criminal justice, housing, health care, with segregation in schools still a reality in the US.

Not to forget the tragic death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown from six gunshots fired by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, which had made headlines around the world. However, India had been restrained in its reaction and did not make a statement that would have made the American establishment uncomfortable.

Also, though America considers itself as the upholders of moral values, the fact is that it has often been accused of double standards. From toppling legitimate governments, to propping puppet regimes, to supplying illegal arms to rebels around the world, it has allegedly ‘been there and done that’. Just to make a point - Saddam Hussein may have been a maniac and a despot, accused of carrying out terrible crimes against his own people, but America entered Iraq on the pretext of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which were never found.

This is not to suggest that two wrongs make a right. The NDA government does need to rein-in the so-called ‘fringe elements’ and those trying to polarize the society. The Modi government does need to instil a sense of security in every Indian and send out a harsh message to those who want to fish in troubled waters. But, I reiterate, we do not need any preaching from anybody, however powerful, least alone America, which needs to first look inwards.

Talking about PM Modi, he has been silent on the comments by Obama and perhaps rightly so. However, his Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley did say that India had a “huge cultural history of tolerance and any aberration doesn’t alter the history”. He also said that the best example of tolerance was sitting next to US President, the Dalai Lama, when the statement was made. “It’s a part of India’s tolerance that even he found it comfortable and India found it comfortable to absorb him in the society,” Jaitley emphasized.

PM Modi had also taken it in his stride, when President Obama had appealed for religious freedom on the last day of his India visit in January, saying that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines.” He had also cited the promise of freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion under Article 25 of our Constitution.

But PM’s silence should not be taken as a sign of weakness. Since Modi has come to power, he has sent out a message to the world that India is equal to them and not inferior in any way. Modi, just like former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, has the guts to look the West and its leaders in the eye.

At the same time, inspite of Obama’s comments, there is no doubt that PM Modi will continue engaging with America and will not let anything undo the good that was achieved during US President’s India visit, including the agreement on Nuclear Deal and cooperation in defence sector. I guess, the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy will let it pass this time.