Narendra Modi

Obama Disses Religious Liberties in India

His visit missed an opportunity to speak up against the Modi government's assaults on religious minorities


President Barack Obama handed Narendra Modi a personal triumph by accepting the Indian prime minister's invitation to attend India's Republic Day celebrations last Monday, January 26. The holiday commemorates Indiaadopting its constitution, and affirms the nation's commitment to religious liberties. That's why it was critical for President Obama to ensure that Modi and his Hindu triumphalist cronies didn't regard his visit as a clean chit for their recent attacks on religious liberties.

But he didn't.

Obama's visit was part of his broader Asia initiative to get India, like China, to cut carbon emissions, while strengthening America and India's trade and security ties as a counterweight to China's growing influence. But fighting global warming in exchange for tolerating religious persecution is hardly a good trade off.

Modi is new in office, and has yet to prove he's a worthy partner—never mind the strong "chemistry" between "Barack and me" that Modi keeps harping about. He won a great victory in parliamentary elections by focusing, laser-like, on economic and governance issues—and downplaying his Hindu nationalism. But when he was chief minister of Gujarat, India experienced one of its worst post-independence incidents of anti-Muslim bloodletting by Hindu fundamentalists, some of them aligned with Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, provoking the Bush administration to impose a visa ban on him—and the Obama administration to maintain it till Modi's election.

Modi refused to apologize for the violence during his campaign, dismissing pleas to do so as a ploy to distract from his message of "development and jobs." But now that Hindu nationalists—some in his own cabinet—are distracting from this economic message, Modi seems blissfully unperturbed.

His education minister replaced German with Sanskrit as the third language option in schools for government employee children in the middle of the school year, creating a huge furor. Why did she do this? Because it's the language of Hindu scriptures—never mind that it has little practical relevance in modernizing India, where parents overwhelmingly prefer other languages. Nor is this an isolated attempt at scriptural chauvinism by Modi officials. India's minister of science and technology has asserted—in a national science conference inaugurated by Modi no less!—that ancient Indians, not Greeks, discovered the Pythagorean theorem. At the same conference, a respected pilot asserted not only that Hindus invented planes thousands of years before the Wright brothers, but that these planes could fly in any direction—and between planets to boot! Such claims are in keeping with Modi's own boast, previously confined to fringe gurus, that Indians knew genetics and plastic surgery thousands of years ago—otherwise how could Hindu god Ganesh have acquired an elephant head?

All of this jingoism would be comical if it weren't accompanied with chilling calls by militant Hindu supremacist outfits such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, where Modi cut his political teeth, for upping India's Hindu presence from 80 percent to "100 percent by 2021."

This is no idle pronouncement. In September, the RSS partnered with a state BJP chapter to reignite its campaign against "love jihad"—or the alleged Islamist conspiracy to convert Hindu women by seducing or bribing them to marry Muslim men. But instead of chastising this naked attempt to incite anti-Muslim hatred, Modi's chairperson to the National Commission for Women justified it by noting that it represented understandable "outrage" against inter-faith marriages that are "against the norm."

This effort, moreover, was simply the opening act of a more ominous campaign to hold mass "reconversions" of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism in public ceremonies called ghar wapasis—or homecomings. Dubbing this a "reconversion" effort is a clever ploy that serves a dual purpose. First, it emphasizes RSS's incendiary claim that Islamic rulers and Christian missionaries illicitly converted Hindus who are now merely being returned to their true heritage. And second, it sets the stage to exempt the organization from the national ban on religious conversions it is seeking, effectively handing it a monopoly on the conversion business.

The ghar wapasi campaign provoked a major row in parliament. Opposition leaders demanded that Modi pledge to end the initiative. He resolutely resisted, even though this prevented legislation on his key economic reforms from moving forward. Moreover, he rechristened Christmas as Good Governance Day, cancelling this Christian national holiday for government employees while leaving the many Hindu holidays intact.

A delegation of Christians led by Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic priest, paid Modi a customary visit on Christmas and complained that ghar wapasis and other attacks were making them "feel insecure and fearful." They asked Modi to say a few public words condemning such activity to put their minds at ease. Modi coldly informed them, after ordering the video camera switched off they said, that it wasn't his role to weigh in on every issue and they shouldn't fall for "media exaggerations."

A group of Indian Catholic Bishops has since issued a statement demanding that Modi intervene to stop such unconstitutional activities.

Modi's plan was to use Obama's visit as the West's vote of confidence in himself, and pooh-pooh growing domestic alarm over his creeping Hindutva agenda. And he succeeded because the president has given no indication that he conveyed to Modi that he was troubled by the developments thus far. Sure, on the final day, he paid lip service to religious unity and made references to his own Christian faith.

But Obama should have also privately—but forcefully—told Modi that America's continued backing for India's Security Council bid depends on ending India's assaults on the rights of religious minorities. He should have pointedly emphasized in his public comments that what binds the two democracies are not just commercial ties but mutual traditions of tolerance. Above all, he should meet with Christian and Muslim leaders whom Modi has dissed in an open show of solidarity with them.

Instead, Obama chose to ignore the political forces his visit was aiding and abetting in India.

India is a young democracy whose commitment to religious liberty is still fragile. On its Republic Day, President Obama did nothing to strengthen it.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.

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  1. Someone brought up Bush's role in improving relations with India, which is one of the few things he did well. Not sure Obama entirely gets why India is important (though, to be fair, at least he's visiting), nor is he likely to use the U.S.'s substantial influence to try to change anything. I'm always wary of such attempts, anyway, but India strikes me as more receptive to it than, say, China or Pakistan.

    1. I think yesterday we decided that there were several reasons why India is important.

      Most of those reasons involved food and women.

      1. and awesomely bad music videos.

      2. Mmm..goat vindaloo.

        1. so not indian.

          1. I've had goat vindaloo in Indian restaurants. Is it not indian?

    2. A honey badger is more receptive than Pakistan.

  2. Pretty sure Hindu radicalism doesn't threaten the United States, so really not our affair to deal with.

    1. Shikha Dalmia believes in a world where any Indian can immigrate to the US when they want and any US President can interfere in India whenever they want.

  3. I hate the cult of the presidency. What exactly is a US president suppose to do in India? Say religious freedom is good? Great he says it. Now what? If India wants to change something that is the Indian people's prerogative.

    1. I don't mind some subtle pressures to behave, but talking down to or hectoring foreign leaders really isn't going to get you very far.

      1. I may be way off but I doubt if some foreign leader came to the U.S. and said free trade would benefit everyone, it would change much. I'm skeptical of the power of any individual over an entire country.

        1. Agreed. I suppose the real influence comes in trade agreements.

          1. The only reason that influence comes from those 'trade agreements' is that the state uses the power of violence to tax its citizens and punish/reward favored/unfavored industries, distorting market signals and making *its own citizens* poorer in the bargain.

            We don't need trade agreements, we merely need out *own* government to get out of the way - even one-sided free-trade benefits the free-trading side.

            1. I'm talking about as things are situated now, not as I'd like to have things situated.

            2. We don't need trade agreements, we merely need out *own* government to get out of the way


    2. But Obama should have also privately?but forcefully?told Modi that America's continued backing for India's Security Council bid depends on ending India's assaults on the rights of religious minorities.

      That doesn't strike me as unreasonable.

      1. Fair enough.

    3. I'd be pretty happy to hear Obama say any kind of freedom is good wherever he is.

    4. Great he says it. Now what? If India wants to change something that is the Indian people's prerogative.

      He's the commander in chief. With Drones. Wielding a Nobel Peace Prize.

      1. + a pretty nice pen/phone combo

  4. Maybe I'm going to sound incredibly cynical here, but why is any of this any of Mr. Obama's business? India is a sovereign country, capable of governing itself as it sees fit. It's hardly the case that we don't have cordial relations with even more religiously intolerant nations. Modi should change India's policies. I'll happily agree with you about that. But, I think it's absurd to argue that our leaders should be meddling with their internal affairs.

    1. You just sound libertarian to me.

  5. Meh. If you're that worried about India, go there yourself. Not our problem.

  6. This is the dumbest thing I've ever read.

    "Speaker John Boehner may be guilty of treason"

    Okay, the guy claims he's violating the Logan Act, which says that an American citizen can't try and 'influence' foreign officials without the government's consent.

    The problem is, Boehner IS a part of the government. He's not a private citizen.

    "This possible charge is complicated and yet exceedingly simple. Netanyahu will not be offering Republicans any form of a cash donation, but the law stipulates any contribution of a 'thing of value' is illegal to accept. The most powerful man in Israel giving a speech at the request of Republicans isn't a 'thing of value'? The speech won't generate an unknown value for Republicans in terms of fundraising? Netanyahu's presence won't directly impact donations from those who are in favor of the Israel lobby?"

    If this is the definition of a 'thing of value' then every person in the American government is guilty of treason.

    And the comments...the goddamn comments.

    "Treason carries the death penalty, doesn't it? No messing around this time. Let's show them we're serious. Press charges."

    Let's murder our political opponents! Pogroms for all! Huzzah!

    1. If only there were a document that gave a clear legal definition of "treason." What would we call it?

    2. Come on Irish. This can't be the dumbest thing you've read. We have a resident derpatologist that brings us exquisite derp from all over the interwebz.

      1. No, this is dumber than anything I've seen Derpetologist post.

        They're arguing that a sitting Speaker of the House should be charged with treason for allowing a dignitary to speak in the House without the president's consent.

        Even though the president has no authority over the House and they can invite whoever they want to speak there.

        1. That is pretty dumb. Are you claiming to have...dare I say it, found peak derp?

        2. That is because they are totalitarians and see Obumbles as King. They really, really want him to be.

          1. Also, they are really pissed because The Orange One essentially slapped Obumbles across the face. In public. Really hard.

            Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

    3. Releasing violent, psychotic Islamonazi terrorists from prison so they can go murder more innocent people is great, and inviting an elected head of state to Congress is "treason". Got it.

      The left is absolutely out of their fucking minds.

      1. Their foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Israel is more evident than usual.

    4. Let's murder our political opponents!

      They so want to. If the DOJ arrested Boehner and executed him after a hearing before a military tribunal and with no recourse to the courts, these people would orgasm they would so excited and happy.

      1. What they're really angry about is that Boehner isn't showing proper deference to Sun King Barack Obama, He Who Banishes Shadows and Bathes His Subjects in a Caressing Light.

        They want Boehner punished for lese majeste.

      2. And, of course, it never occurs to any of them that any of this could come back to haunt them.

    5. So if Congress has the power to decide to whom it can extend an invitation to speak before it, and if John Boehner is the Speaker of the House, how can he be acting 'without authority of the United States' as stipulated in the Logan Act?

      1. Because Barack Obama's preferred foreign policy is all that matters, and as such coequal branches of government must bow and grovel before him or be dragged before a Citizen's Tribunal.

      2. Apparently to these people, Barack Obama IS the United States.

    6. Let's murder our political opponents!

      Tolerant people don't tolerate intolerance. Thus when tolerant people murder their political opponents it is an act of tolerance.

    7. If they really want to start down the road of claiming everything said in Congress is a campaign contribution, I don't think they are going to like where that road ends.

      1. Wouldn't that make their salaries campaign contributions?

    8. This makes the "government shutdown is treason!" cries from 2013 sound sane.

  7. This is a president who dare not say "islamic terror", and instead uses vague words like "violent extremism".

    This is a president who says that "the future does not belong to those who tarnish the prophet of islam", instead of defending the core American value of free speech.

    This is a president whose teleprompter has soaring rhetoric on gender equality on the campaign trail, but won't say anything in Saudi Arabia.

    So what exactly, Shikha, did you expect? And WHY did you expect it?

    I don't like the Hindu fundamentalists one bit, but isn't that something for India to handle herself?

    1. but won't say anything in Saudi Arabia.

      No, no; that's not true. He will say that one of the most repressive dictators on Earth is a "moderate" and praise him effusively.

    2. Steve Smith seen prowling the streets of Boston looking for victims.

    3. but won't say anything in Saudi Arabia.

      One of the national networks had a story last night about poor Michelle not getting her hand shakes by some members of the Saudi royal family.

      1) who cares? It's their country, their funeral.

      2) what official position does Michelle hold, other than a marriage license to the president?

      3) what kind of dickhead puts her out in that position to get "snubbed"? Goldie Hawn did a better job as a protocol specialist.

      1. She wasn't properly dressed - that's probably why.

        1. Oh yeah. Not even the token head scarf.

          1. Well, I give her props for that much, anyway.

            1. Reluctantly agree. But I have to wonder if she was making a statement or just being ignorant.

  8. I tawt I taw a putty tat! Baby birds come face-to-face with a kitten - but they prove too much for him to handle

    Russian YouTube user posted a video showing the small feline hopping into a box with the birds
    Gah! The cuteness! It's too much!

    1. Gah! Vertical video syndrome!

    2. on Russian YouTube ducks eat you

  9. I'd ban any fucking dictator from setting foot in this country- however damn petty. Next issue on my furiously liberty-imposing agenda would be rooting out all the dictators already here on the taxpayer dime and booting them back into the real American where they can take jobs that have nothing to do with destroying the values of freedom.

  10. if I had to go to India, I wouldn't go to the bathroom for the entire trip

    1. Yeah, like I'm going to click a video with kind of introduction.

  11. Did you write this article last week or something and then just post it without bothering to check what actually happened during the trip?

    That's why it was critical for President Obama to ensure that Modi and his Hindu triumphalist cronies didn't regard his visit as a clean chit for their recent attacks on religious liberties.

    Oh look, he did:

    In parting shot, Obama prods India on religious freedom

    1. Hours before boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia, Obama warned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely "profess, practice and propagate" religion.

      Isn't that what's going on in India... the Hindus are propagating their religion?

      1. Yeah. Sort of like how ISIS is propagating Islam. A good number of both the Hindus and the Muslims are fucking nuts. The question is which nuts are the lesser of the two evils. Since I haven't seen many Hindus blowing shit up over here, I am taking them.

        1. I was surprised to hear there is even such a thing as "Hindu nationalism". All the Hindus I am surrounded by at work are such nice guys.

        2. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have the notion that most is the Hindu extremism is in response to the Muslim extremism.

          Take away the Muslim extremists and the Hindus would drift back to moderation. Take away the Hindu extremists and the Muslims would still be slaughtering Indians.

          Me too. I will take the Hindus.

      2. Obama warned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely "profess, practice and propagate" religion

        Then he went straight to Saudi Arabia and didn't say dick about the complete lack of freedom there - religious or otherwise. Why should anyone listen to anything he has to say?

    2. Obama and Modi's relaxed manner together during the visit was dubbed a "bromance" in India media, after the two men shared tea in a lotus garden, recorded a radio show together, and spent two hours chatting at a rain-splashed military parade.

      Yeah, a parting money shot maybe.

  12. I see article after article proclaiming what Obama should do for the good of the country or to stand up for some principle.

    A complete waste of good pixels. Why would he change now?

    Who said yesterday that a leftist, big government autocrat is a leftist, big government autocrat is a leftist, big government autocrat?

    I can think of a lot of things he could or should do for the good of the country or to stand up for principle, but all we are going to get is cronyism and expansion of the state, diminishing us all.

  13. ancient Indians, not Greeks, discovered the Pythagorean theorem

    It is known to have been discovered independently by at least the Greeks, the Chinese, and the Indians. So... this is not some wacky claim. The 7,000 year old airplane is a wacky claim.

    1. Intellectual property violation by Pythagorus. Kinda like Joe Fugnutz who died of Lou Gehrig's disease a year before the slugger. "I wanted my name on their lips as they died from a horrible disease."

    2. Pythogoras and the Indians stole that theorem from Africa!

      Plus sliced bread, the TV remote, and other worthwhile discoveries.

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  15. In 1932 British regime approved Independent Nations for Muslim/Sikh/Christian/Parsi/Buddhist/Jain communities in 2nd Round Table Conference;

    We Have Petitioned President Obama To Grant Asylum To Untouchable People from India

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