Religious splintering will harm India story, Barack Obama warns Narendra Modi

NEW DELHI(DNA/PTI):Controversy erupts after Barack Obama emphasises on religious freedom and tolerance in Siri Fort speech; politicians draw swords. Making a strong pitch for religious tolerance, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday said every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution and that India will succeed so long it is not “splintered” on religious lines.

Addressing a Town hall event at the Siri Fort auditorium on the third and final day of his visit to India, Obama also said that America can be India’s “best partner”.

“Every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination. India will succeed so long it is not splintered on religious lines,” Obama told the audience comprising mainly young people.

The President’s comments came against the backdrop of the controversy over religious conversions and ‘Ghar Wapsi” programmes by right wing Hindu outfits in India. Obama also cited Article 25 of the Indian Constitution dealing with Freedom of religion.

“Your (Constitution) Article 25 says all people are equally entitled to the freedon of consience and have right to freely profess and practise and propagate religion. In both our countries, in all countries upholding with freedom of religion is the utmost responsibility of the government but also the responsibility of every person,” he said.

Obama also said that around the world we have seen intolerance, violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing for upholding their faith “We have to guard against any efforts to divide us on sectarian lines or any other thing,” he said.

Obama further said that no society is immune by the darkest impulses of man and that more often religion has been used to tap into it.

Obama recounted an incident that occured three years ago in Wisconsin where a man went into a Sikh gurudwara and “in a terrible act of violence” killed six innocent people which included both American and Indians.

“In that moment of shared grief, the two countries reaffirmed the basic truth that we must again today. Every person has a right to practice the faith that they choose and to practice no faith at all and to do so free of persecution, fear or discrimination,” he said.

In his speech, attended by young students, scholars and others, Obama said such a proposition holds much importance in India.

“And nowhere it is more important than in India. Nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld,” he said.

Indian politicians were quick to react to Obama’s comments. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh saw a warning to PM Modi in Obama’s message:

Taking a jibe at Modi calling ‘Barack’ his friend, Digvijaya said:

digvijaya singh ✔ @digvijaya_28

Obama reminds us of Article 25 of Indian Constitution of the Right of every Citizen of India to progress practice and propagate his Religion
12:24 PM – 27 Jan 2015

Would Modi take his friend Barack’s advice and ask his friends in VHP to shut up and request Mohan Bhagwat to stop justifying Ghar Vapsi ?
12:29 PM – 27 Jan 2015

Thank you Mr President Barack Obama for speaking up for the Indian Citizen’s Rights to Profess Practice and Propagate his Religious Belief.
12:32 PM – 27 Jan 2015

Don’t mind if you are at the receiving end of some unsavory remarks on Social Media by Religious Fundamentalists. Mr Modi are you listening?
12:36 PM – 27 Jan 2015

Shiv Sena MP Bharatkumar Raut however had a different opinion:

Bharat Kumar Raut @BharatkumarRaut

The anti @narendramodi lobby that had gone on back-foot after @BarackObama showed closeness with him, is now hanging to this weak clue. Ha!!
12:56 PM – 27 Jan 2015

Why should we consider remarks of @BarackObama on religious freedom anti @narendramodi?His comments are of general nature & universal truth.
12:52 PM – 27 Jan 2015

He also took potshots at the ‘anti-Modi’ lobby:

Underlining the factors that unify both the countries, Obama said “our diversity is our strength” and cautioned that both India and the US have to be on guard against divisive efforts along sectarian lines or any other lines.

Journalist Nikhil Wagle also attempted to interpret Obama’s message about religious tolerance:

nikhil wagle @waglenikhil

“@PTI_News: India will succeed so long it is not splintered on religious lines:Obama” Did u listen Mr Modi?
11:44 AM – 27 Jan 2015

“…If we do that well and if America shows itself as example of its diversity and the capacity to live and work together in common effort and common purpose and if India as massive as it is with so much diversity, so many differences, is able to continuously reaffirm its democracy so that is an example for every other country.

That’s what makes us world leaders. Not just the size of our economies or the number of weapons we have but our ability to show the way and how we work together,” he said.

Whether Obama intended to caution Modi in an indirect manner, or was merely making observations about religion given the amount of religious fundamentalism plaguing the world may never be known. But it is peculiar that Obama mentioned religion and chose to harp on it for so long during his speech. In any case, it has provided ready fodder for India’s political fraternity as well as social media to indulge in heated debates.

(With PTI inputs)