Former US President Barack Obama in an interview said, in brief comment as reply to a question about India and the visiting PM Narendra Modi, that the country needs to protect all its citizens including minorities else the country will get pulled apart. This honest simple truth telling has irked the legions of foot soldiers of Modi who brook absolutely no unflattering comment from within India or from abroad. A senior member of Modi’s cabinet chose to join issue with the President but sadly the President, barely few days after his comment, stands vindicated.
In 1927 Katherine Mayo published ‘Mother India’, a book that eviscerated India shining a spotlight on the plight of women, children and untouchables (as they were then called). The book arrived as India was locked in a struggle against a colonial regime for freedom and invited blistering attack from none other than Gandhi himself. Gandhi called the book “a drain inspector’s report”. Lala Lajpat Rai who had lived in US for 10 years then published, with a note of apology, a book that, in turn, eviscerated US for its racial inequities. He did atone for that book with another that was quite warm about USA. Notably he titled the book as “The United States of America: A Hindu’s Impression”. He chose to identify himself as Hindu and not Indian. While nationalists hauled Katherine Mayo over the coals firebrand leader of Dalits from Chennai, M.C. Rajah, celebrated the book for highlighting the plight of his fellow men that caste Hindus, who dominated the nationalist struggle, sought to deny or whitewash. Note, it wasn’t until 1933, after the Poona Pact, would Gandhi turn his immense charisma towards ameliorating the plight of the Depressed Classes.
Post-Independence India got no reprieve from the likes of Naipaul and Gunter Grass in the early decades of freedom as the country was picking itself up from colonial rule and bootstrapping itself to progress. Naipaul's first two books on India, "An Area of Darkness" (1964) followed by "A Wounded Civilization" (1977), advertised his disappointment with India and with what he considered symptomatic ills that go beyond the then present day poverty and squalor. Indians were infuriated then. The books are certainly outdated and India may very well say Naipaul was shown to be wrong but the books do contain nuggets that still ring true. Naipaul recounts how the country was more eager to celebrate Hargovind Khorana for his Nobel Prize than for understanding him. I saw a repeat of that with Venky Ramakrishna. Gunter Grass notoriously asked why should India bother with literature while there is depressing poverty in Calcutta streets. Naipaul's last book on India, "India: A Million Mutinies now" (1990) was relatively tame. In an ironical twist Naipaul's criticism of the Middle East is now eagerly lapped up by the Parivar brigade.
While Katherine Mayo was lambasted for not showing sympathetic understanding to a country under a colonial yoke and Naipaul was hated for being excessively harsh on his ancestral land that was picking itself up from the ruins Obama's criticism comes at a very different juncture in India's trajectory. Today, India is the 3rd largest economy, a country that has opened doors to all multinational companies, a burgeoning upwardly mobile middle class, a country where billionaires are no longer unicorns, cars are no longer only the preserve of the rich and air travel is as common as a train ride and much more. With all that one would expect the country to be mature in its response to a former president but that did not happen. In today's India criticism of the country is seen as criticism of the infallible and indomitable leader and any criticism of the leader is ipso facto a criticism of the country, nay, even worse, the Sanatana Dharma that stretches across millennia.
Barack Obama did not say anything that he did not say in 2014, as chief guest to India's Republic Day Parade. Speaking at Siri Fort Obama said the following and I am quoting in extenso:
We are strongest when we see the inherent dignity in every human being. Look at our countries -- the incredible diversity even here in this hall. India is defined by countless languages and dialects, and every color and caste and creed, gender and orientations. And likewise, in America, we’re black and white, and Latino and Asian, and Indian-American, and Native American. Your constitution begins with the pledge to uphold “the dignity of the individual.” And our Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal.”
"In both our countries, generations have worked to live up to these ideals. When he came to India, Martin Luther King, Jr. was introduced to some schoolchildren as a “fellow untouchable.” My grandfather was a cook for the British army in Kenya. The distant branches of Michelle’s family tree include both slaves and slave owners. When we were born, people who looked like us still couldn’t vote in some parts of the country. Even as America has blessed us with extraordinary opportunities, there were moments in my life where I’ve been treated differently because of the color of my skin."
"Many countries, including the United States, grapple with questions of identity and inequality, and how we treat each other, people who are different than us, how we deal with diversity of beliefs and of faiths. Right now, in crowded neighborhoods not far from here, a man is driving an auto-rickshaw, or washing somebody else’s clothes, or doing the hard work no one else will do. And a woman is cleaning somebody else’s house. And a young man is on a bicycle delivering lunch. A little girl is hauling a heavy bucket of water. And I believe their dreams, their hopes, are just as important, just as beautiful, just as worthy as ours. And so even as we live in a world of terrible inequality, we’re also proud to live in countries where even the grandson of a cook can become President, or even a Dalit can help write a constitution, and even a tea seller can become Prime Minister. (Applause.)"
"In our lives, Michelle and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith. But there have been times where my faith has 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. Around the world, we’ve seen intolerance and violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing up for their faith, but, in fact, are betraying it. No society is immune from the darkest impulses of man. And too often religion has been used to tap into those darker impulses as opposed to the light of God. Three years ago in our state of Wisconsin, back in the United States, a man went to a Sikh temple and, in a terrible act of violence, killed six innocent people -- Americans and Indians. And in that moment of shared grief, our two countries reaffirmed a basic truth, as we must again today -- that 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 and discrimination. (Applause.)
"And it’s when all Indians, whatever your faith, go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan. And when you celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh or Mary Kom. And every Indian can take pride in the courage of a humanitarian who liberates boys and girls from forced labor and exploitation -- who is here today -- Kailash Satyarthi. (Applause.) Our most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. (Applause.)"
"So that's what unifies us: Do we act with compassion and empathy. Are we measured by our efforts -- by what Dr. King called “the content of our character” rather than the color of our skin or the manner in which we worship our God. In both our countries, in India and in America, our diversity is our strength. And we have to guard against any efforts to divide ourselves along sectarian lines or any other lines. And if we do that well, if America shows itself as an example of its diversity and yet the capacity to live together and work together in common effort, in common purpose; if India, as massive as it is, with so much diversity, so many differences is able to continually affirm its democracy, that is an example for every other country on Earth. That's what makes us world leaders -- not just the size of our economy or the number of weapons we have, but our ability to show the way in how we work together, and how much respect we show each other."
Before I turn to Nirmala Sitharaman's half baked repartee I'll draw attention to the salient parts of Obama's remarks. Here's a then sitting American president in a foreign country freely talking about the racial inequalities and prejudices back home and citing personal experiences. The usual Fox News crowd might have been irked but there was no brouhaha about this rare breach in traditional etiquette because America had become more comfortable talking about its ills and its unique president who tended to get professorial. It is not like Obama was lecturing 'down' to India, he was talking 'to' India. A Nehru or a Rajiv Gandhi might've understood him better.
Nirmala Sitharaman thought she was delivering a zinger by saying that Obama who as president went to war with Muslim countries. America did not go to war with Iraq or any Middle Eastern country 'because' it is an Islamic country. Let us remember that days after 9/11 at the National Cathedral a Muslim cleric, at the invitation of the then US President George W. Bush, offered prayers. Bush went to great lengths to disavow any notion of Islamophobia. On 9/18, a week after 9/11, Bush visited a Mosque to expressly declare his resolution against hate crimes. His attorney general pursued and punished perpetrators of hate crimes. One can be against the Iraq war but one cannot attribute Islamophobia as the motivator.
Ms Sitharaman is equally unaware of Barack Obama's famous speech at Cairo University in June 2009, at the very start of his presidency. Here too, the world saw an American president, being self critical, of course within the parameters of what was politically possible. A few quotes:
Mr Modi's party is notorious for intentionally excluding Muslim candidates in order to consolidate the Hindu vote. Whether it is the parliament or a state legislature wherever BJP gains political ascendancy Muslim representation has taken a deep knock. Over the last 10 years new words entered the political discourse in both US and India, in USA the words "Black Lives Matter" came into being and in India the words "cow lynching" came into being. That difference speaks volumes.
America is a country that sits at the global crossroads with an immense power that it has wielded to do good and harm, too. Obama himself won the presidency scolding the country for going into Iraq. Critique American foreign policy all you want until hell freezes over. Be my guest. Maybe I'll even help with details. That said America has more often been India's friend. It is sheer stupidity to claim that only today India commands respect on the global stage. Anyone who suggests that is ignorant of history. Jawaharlal Nehru's visits to US were huge successes and the man was feted in cities, universities and press clubs across US. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi too had their successes. America's relationship with India had its fair share of dips too.
Even as Ms Sitharaman was trying to one up Obama a tragedy unfolded in an Indian town. In Nasik a Muslim was killed on suspicions of having beef and now 11 are arrested. This 'cow lynching' only vindicates what Obama said. Take the recent horrific train tragedy that claimed the lives of hundreds of Indians, of all religions and castes; barely within hours of the tragedy social media was agog with rumors that a mosque was nearby, the mosque turned out to be an ISKCON temple. This kind of hatred is not normal and Obama did not even go that far he merely offered a simple truth.
Tamil publisher Badri Seshadri, echoing the sentiments of fellow Hindutvaites, suggested that going forward American presidents visiting India should be quizzed on school shootings and racial inequalities. I've ZERO issues with that. Who knows maybe it'd indeed stir the American public to promulgate better gun control and we'd be better off for that. Joe Biden has acknowledged systemic racism even in his inaugural speech. The words "systemic racism" are now no longer radioactive, at least to the sensible and morally minded citizens. Curiously Badri Seshadri, who spent several years as student in US but never bothered understanding anything about the country, added "foisting cases on Trump" to his list of supposedly embarrassing topics that an American president ought to be quizzed. Actually in that same interview Obama was asked just about that. To Badri and others I'll say please go see what Trump's own former attorney general and Vice President said of his conduct. America's justice system is not a kangaroo court.
Barack Obama schooled India on the responsibilities of a democracy and sadly he stands vindicated.
1. Obama Speech at Siri Fort transcript https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/27/remarks-president-obama-address-people-india
2. Obama Speech at Cairo, transcript https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6-04-09
4. India Today Tweet by Rajdeep Sardesai https://twitter.com/IndiaToday/status/1673352565730459649?s=20
5. Badri Seshadri tweet (and my reply) https://twitter.com/arvindkannaiyan/status/1673306422237442049?s=20
6. Obama interview by Christiane Amanpour https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/23/politics/obama-amanpour-what-matters/index.html