A candelight vigil at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a year after Wade Michael Page, an American white supremacist, fatally shot six people and wounded four others at the temple. All of the dead were members of the Sikh faith
Obama’s comments regarding India during February’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington have further strained formal ties between the leaders. During his speech, Obama remarked: “Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity – but 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.”
Unsure of his intentions, Indian officials were highly taken aback with the president’s comments. Such belittling remarks about the world’s largest democracy have enraged Indians who highlighted the strength of their liberal plural secular democracy by pointing towards the recent successful elections in the conservative Muslim majority states of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government also cited various “pro-active” steps that India has undertaken to empower minorities and to ensure their socio-economic and political integration.
To many, these remarks seem to be an indirect, yet scathing critique, highlighting the black spots of Modi’s political career. In 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi and his administration were accused of perpetuating and fostering religious riots, as well as the killings of Muslims in his home state. The US government was deeply concerned about his extremist pro-Hindu agenda and had denied him a US visa since 2005, a ban that was recently lifted in light of his election as the Prime Minister.
Due to the threat of destroying amicable relations, The Obama Administration was quick to respond. Phil Renier, the White House’s senior director for South Asian Affairs, released a statement saying that Obama’s speech was about inclusion and the power of diversity and that the president’s words were “misconstrued” and “taken out of context”.
RN Ravi, Chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee, asserted that “the usual notions of minorities and their alienation are not valid in the Indian context” at a recent seminar attended by representatives from almost 60 countries.
If one looks closely enough, however, it is evident that the assertions of Obama’s insensitivity are well-founded. His comments disparaged India and its people, and, given the expertise of Obama’s speechwriters, have little chance of being unintentional. This event, however, also serves to juxtapose the United States and India on the issues of religious intolerance. India has been deeply divided along the lines of class, culture, and religion for almost two decades, and the country’s rapid progress towards the status of a global player has made the general public increasingly familiar with the country. Despite this, most don’t fully appreciate the intricately woven complexities of India’s political and social systems, leading to misunderstandings.
When thinking of India, people tend to remember the most costly and notorious instances of conflict, painting much of the country’s modern history as a blood-red portrait of religious violence and communal riots. Obama relied upon this image in his speech, likely in an attempt to downplay the instances of religious intolerance that have been occurring in his own country. He highlights the fact that the home country of Gandhi, the world’s greatest peace icon, has recently experienced horrendous conflict such as the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and the Naxal attack in Darbha valley, all the while failing to mention the violent, discriminatory acts that occur frequently in America.
In recent months, the topics of religious and racial intolerance have been brought to the forefront of American media. It started with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American who was assaulted and fatally shot by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. More recently, a man named Antonio Zambrano-Montes was killed by an officer for allegedly “throwing rocks at passing by vehicles”. This “Ferguson moment” for the Latino community was hardly acknowledged, most likely due to the relatively low political power of the community, further underscoring the degree of inequality prevalent in America. In another case last month, a grandfather visiting his children from India was paralyzed due to the strength of a police officer’s assault. Rather than aiding or welcoming the elderly citizen visiting from abroad, the officer mistook him for a terrorist due to his skin color.
These instances are not isolated events. America has been experiencing such racial and religious killing in a multitude of other cases as well, such as the Wisconsin Sikh Temple massacre. It seems as if Obama, in criticizing India’s religious issues, attempted to reassure the American public of its tolerance by propping up an ill-conceived straw man. If Washington’s proclaimed concerns about the “misconstruing” of the speech are sincere, the Obama administration should have taken care to phrase the speech with more consideration. After all, firing a parting shot at Modi during the final speech of a diplomatic visit will not win the president any favors.
On an ironic note, during this year’s Prayer Breakfast, Obama was seated next to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has found refuge in the northern hills of India since 1959.
Puneet Brar is a sophomore at Cornell University, majoring in Environmental Science and Sustainability and minoring in Policy Analysis and Management.