HOURS before winding up his three-day visit to India, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday made a strong pitch for religious tolerance. Invoking Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that gives every citizen the right to practice or propagate his/ her religion, Obama cautioned India against efforts to divide society on “sectarian lines”.
It was a politically sensitive message for India, though there were no major political leaders in the select audience of about 1,500 people, which mostly comprised students and scholars.
Addressing the townhall meeting at the Siri Fort auditorium here, Obama said: “Every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines.”
Obama devoted five minutes of his 33-minute speech to the issue of religious freedom and diversity. “Your Article 25 says all people are equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and have the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion. In both our countries, in all countries, upholding freedom of religion is the utmost responsibility of the government, but also the responsibility of every person,” he said.
“In both our countries, in almost all countries, upholding this fundamental right is the responsibility of the government and also the responsibility of every person,” he emphasised.
He said that across the world, there was intolerance, violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to uphold their faith. “We have to guard against any efforts to divide us on sectarian lines or any other thing,” he said.
Obama began his reference to religious tolerance by pointing out that across “our two great countries” there were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jews. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said different religions are like beautiful flowers in the same garden and branches from the “same majestic tree”.
He pointed out that freedom of religion was written into America’s founding documents and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. He said no society is immune to the “darkest impulses” of man, and religion is often used to tap into it.
He recalled an incident that occured three years ago in Wisconsin, when a man went into a gurudwara and “in a terrible act of violence” killed six innocent people, including 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,” said Obama. “And nowhere is it more important than in India. Nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld.”
During his speech, which was punctuated by applause and laughter 41 times, Obama also cited actor Shah Rukh Khan, sports icons Milkha Singh and Mary Kom and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to make his point that diversity and humanitarian values unify both the nations. Among the audience were Umer Ilyasi of the All India Imam organisation and Dominic Emmanuel from the Christan community.
“By what Dr King (Martin Luther King Jr) called content of our character rather than the colour of our skin or the manner in which we worship our God. In both our countries, in India and Amercia, our diversity is our strength,” he said.
“If we do that well and if America shows itself as an 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.
Narrating from his own experience as a minority in the US, Obama said that while he had extraordinary opportunities, “there were moments in my life where I’ve been treated differently because of the colour of my skin.” Referring to rumours that he is a Muslim, he said: “There have been times where my faith has at times been questioned by people who don’t know me, or they’ve said that I adhere to a different religion, as if that were somehow a bad thing.”
Hailing diversity in the two countries, Obama said it had allowed the grandson of a cook to become President and a tea-seller to become a Prime Minister.
“We are strongest when we see the inherent dignity in every human being. Look at our countries, the incredible diversities even here in this hall. India is defined by countless languages and dialects and every colour and caste and creed, gender and orientation. Likewise in America, we are black and white, Latino, Asian, Indian-American, Latino-American,” he said.
“Your Constitution begins with the pledge to uphold the dignity of the individual and our declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are treated equal. In both our countries, generations have worked to live up to these ideas,” he said.
Recalling Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech in Chicago over a century ago, Obama referred to “sisters and brothers of India”. “My confidence in your nation is deep-rooted in values that we share. We may have different history, speak different languages but when we see each other we see a reflection of ourselves,” he said.