President Barrack Obama of the United States (US), on the third day of his second visit to Delhi on 27 January 2015, had said: “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. 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.”
As an ardent advocate of close India-US relations, I had in my article on “The ‘Barack’-Modi chapter of Indo- US relations” in One India One People (March 2015 issue) opined, that “Our relations should not be clouded by Obama’s parting, patronising advice on taking care of religious minorities”. Of all the Presidents of the US so far, he had his personal compulsions probably to say it because of his dual religious identity; he may have been torn between his leanings to Islam that was his father’s religion, and Christianity that was his mother’s faith, as well as the faith of the nation of which he is an elected President.
However, after closely watching the developments as a reaction to his advice, in his country as well as in India, I think he and his advisers did not anticipate adverse developments within the two major democracies. His own life story shows how he emerged from the American ‘melting pot’ or from an American society which Jesse Jackson had described as a ‘Bowl of vegetable soup.’ Analogy refers to the fact that an immigrant to the US while becoming a part of the American society, still retains his individual identity!
considerate in stating that secularism is in our genes.
Domestic political reactions in India have been on known political lines. The Congress Party asked Prime Minister (PM) Modi to learn from Obama to respect India’s commitment to pluralism. There was glee over Modi’s embarrassment; there was no feeling of a nation’s belittlement by an esteemed visitor who received all our attention for three days! On the other hand, Arun Jaitley of the BJP was considerate in stating that secularism is in our genes. In a similar tone, Modi also recently said in his interview to the Time Magazine that democracy is in Indian genes.
It is necessary to understand the broader implications of such an openly given advice on the domestic politics of two such vibrant democracies. I do not hesitate to consider attacks on three Hindu temples in the US or an attack on visiting Indians in the US as a direct effect of the President admonishing India. Similarly, I have a lurking surmise that attacks on Christian churches in Delhi and in Navi Mumbai were also an effect of such open rebuke.
Secular explanation of religious advice
But an observation of the policy formation process in the US and its relation to President’s religious advice to India attracted my attention. Former Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, Raymond Vickery, has linked a secular issue of policymaking to President’s observation on religious freedom. Vickery has said: “With all major political summits, there had been an air of unreality about some aspects of the Obama visit. The Indian press had placed overwhelming emphasis on the bonhomie between Modi and Obama instead of on the issues.” He added: “This emphasis extended from the greeting hug between the two men, to Modi serving tea to Obama, and to the joint radio address of the leaders. Also, it was a bit premature to hail a ‘breakthrough’ on the civil nuclear deal when neither of the implementing US companies would confirm the liability problem had indeed been solved.”
He goes on: “As for climate change, the rhetoric on clean energy was encouraging, but by no means did it commit India to anything. Thus, Obama’s bold decision to bring up major US concerns about women and religion intolerance given India’s difficulties with these issues was useful — in that it restored a sense that there are real and continuing challenges that the United States and India need to jointly address” (emphasis added). I hope it is not true, if it is true, it will be a setback to India- US relations. Realising that, PM Modi might have decided immediately to send Indian Minister for External Affairs to Beijing to underplay India’s strategic partnership with the US!
The aftershocks of a public rebuke
However, as a student of international relations, I wish to point out that the US President could have privately mentioned his concerns to the Indian PM. He should have thought of domestic effects, in both the countries, of his public advice to India. In the absence of that maturity, it is noticed that recently United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has criticised the Indian government for its policy towards minorities. Though USCIRF has been in existence since early 1990s, it seems to work, as far as India is concerned, only when the NDA is in governance in New Delhi!
But the Indian PM has taken his friend’s advice very sportingly. In his recent interview to the Time magazine, he said: “The diversity of India, of our civilisation, is actually a thing of beauty, which is something we are extremely proud of”, in reply to “What he made of the President’s remarks…” Obviously, what we are proud of, we do not ignore or discard, but really care for.
In this respect, his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton (1993-2001)- no friend of India till his March 2000 visit, was far more circumspect in public. He had clearly better understanding of how international setting influences domestic behaviour and vice a versa. He had said in India that its “difficult to be a democracy bordered by nations whose governments reject democracy.” Adapting that statement, it can be said that it’s difficult to be a secular society and polity when surrounded by antisecular societies!
Earlier referred report of USCIRF makes a ridiculous suggestion in the context of their criticism of Indian respect for minority rights. It asks the US to “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts… including the framework of future strategic dialogues …” forgetting that the UN Charter prohibits interference in member countries’ domestic jurisdiction. Hence, if the US is serious, let Obama-Modi jointly work to see that their love for democracy, pluralism and secularism is translated into lasting universal values by making the UN add them to the Charter on Human Rights.