Obama Sifted Wheat from Chaff as He Called for Religious Freedom in IndiaU.S. President Barack Obama’s three days of diplomacy in India last week demonstrated not only Washington’s pursuit of strategic interests but also its proactive disassociation from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
Obama was in India for Republic Day celebrations on the invitation of Modi, ironically the same man who was banned from U.S. travel for his failure to prevent the killing of more than 2,000 minority Muslims in the western Gujarat state that he ruled in 2002.
Obama accepted the invite, becoming the only U.S. President to have visited India twice in his tenure, for purely strategic reasons.
Washington recognizes India’s potential to be a regional counterbalance to China’s growing influence. However, India’s foreign policy has traditionally been inward looking, as envisioned by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Unlike his predecessors, who made little efforts towards asserting regional leadership, Modi has international ambitions and is clearly deviating from Nehru’s principles.
Modi’s aspirations are rooted in Hindu nationalism, which involves a theory that India had a “glorious past” until the “invasions by Muslims and Christians,” including the British rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A Hindu nationalist author, Dinanath Batra, has been promoting a related theory that Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were all part of undivided India or “Akhand Bharat” at one time.
Books authored by Batra have been included in the school syllabus in Gujarat as per the orders of the state government, and he is now advising the federal government on education reforms.
The umbrella Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), where Modi worked as a full-time preacher in the past, expects the prime minister to help regain India’s past “glory.”
A practicable way before Modi is to seek regional hegemony of a “Hindu India” to please his backers. And that’s what he appears to be doing.
Modi invited all the top leaders of the regional bloc South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at his swearing in ceremony on May 26, 2014. He has also made nine foreign trip – including to the U.S., Japan, Australia and Brazil – in his first eight months in office.
Modi’s aggressive foreign policy is expected to take on China, which competes for regional influence with India. China, for example, plans to establish a new Maritime Silk Route linking Europe to China through the Indian Ocean. In response, Modi is expected to launch Project Mausam, stretching from East Africa to Indonesia to gain control over the Indian Ocean.
This is where Modi’s interests overlap with those of the United States, which wants a regional player to resist Beijing’s increasing clout.
The U.S. has made a $4bn commitment in investment and loans to India, which in turn would help New Delhi boost its economy and thereby more influence.
However, Modi – who wore a £10,000 suit decorated with his own name when he met Obama – appears to believe that his party’s socially regressive policies at home are compatible with India’s efforts to gain more influence in the multi-religious, culturally diverse region of South Asia.
Obama made it crystal clear that he is against Modi’s Hindu nationalist vision of India.
“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation,” Obama said in his address to mostly young Indians in New Delhi on Jan 27, according to Reuters. “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.”
Obama seemed to be well aware of some recent developments in India.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for example, is calling for a national law against religious conversions; and the government is reforming school curricula to reflect “Indian” (which can be read as Hindu nationalist) values.
Groups affiliated with the RSS, which are legally non-governmental and charitable organizations, are being given a say in policy-making. Representatives of these Hindu nationalist outfits meet federal ministers on a regular basis to give their input on various issues facing the government.
These organizations, which are blamed for violently attacking religious minorities, are obviously feeling emboldened and have become influential. An example of this can be seen in the recent “preventive” arrest of a Christian preacher, Arvind D’Souza, for “spreading the word of Christianity” in northern Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi town. State police arrested D’Souza for 14 days to “maintain law and order” after such groups opposed his evangelism, according to The Times of India.
A website that monitors Christian persecution, SpeakOutAgainstHate.org, has recorded at least 19 attacks on Christians in the first five weeks of this year thus far.
It was in this context that Obama’s nudge was understood in India.
“I do hope that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was listening to the [Obama’s] speech carefully,” Manish Tewari, an opposition leader from the Left-of-Centre Congress party, said, referring to “majoritarian ethos that goes against the grain of liberal democracy,” according to Reuters.
Obama, through his speech, managed to separate the “wheat,” i.e. Washington’s strategic interests in India, from the “chaff,” or Modi’s vision that views development merely as modern infrastructure with regressive social policies – something that even a nation like Saudi Arabia can boast of.