Trust a high-level visit to throw up surprises when least expected. President Barack Obama’s visit to India has concluded on controversial note. Just before he departed from India on Tuesday, in his town hall address in Delhi, Obama waded into a topic that even India’s brave-hearted prime minister, Narendra Modi fears to tread – freedom of religion in India.

Obama said, “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.” On the face of it, it is such a noble thought. But Obama said this in Modi’s India, “a country with a history of strife between Hindus and minorities.” (Reuters). These are extraordinary times in India with Modi’s government tacitly acquiescing in the campaign by Hindu nationalists (Sangh Parivar, as they are popularly called in India) that India is a “Hindu Rashtra”. Modi himself has kept a deafening silence on the issue, refusing to criticize the Hindu zealots.

Obama also took a swipe at the Hindu nationalists’ campaign to get India’s Christian and Muslim minorities to change their faith. He warned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely “profess, practice and propagate” religion. “Every person has the right to practice their religion and beliefs and not practice it if they choose so without any persecution. No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often, religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts.”

Of course, Obama made no direct reference to Modi himself, but the remarks would rankle nonetheless, since the Indian prime minister was himself ‘blacklisted’ for visa by the US for a decade on account of his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Most certainly, the leaders of the powerful Hindu nationalist movement, which mentors Modi’s government, will not like being handed down such a sermon. No doubt, it is a parting kick at them by Obama.

And in this case, they have every reason to feel furious, because no matter his good intentions, Obama touched on an issue that is in every sense India’s domestic affair. His references constitute an interference in India’s internal affair and he should not have done that while on a state visit. But then, Obama is Obama and he also made public references to India’s relations with Iran and made a vicious attack on Russia and Vladimir Putin — and all this with Modi standing beside him.

One cannot but feel a bit sorry for Modi himself. He did all that is humanly possible to create such unprecedented hype during Obama’s visit. He must be feeling badly let down that all his showmanship over the past three days in front of television cameras  – from the moment Obama landed in Delhi, Modi has been in attendance and doing nothing else – lies in tatters. At the end of the day, Obama’s remarks are a reflection of the India under his rule. And the image doesn’t look good. That’s the honest truth. But then, the good part, hopefully, is that in all this Modi would have also learnt now that diplomacy cannot be reduced to a circus, and he may have realized, even if belatedly, that he went overboard in these past three days.

Did Obama himself get carried away by his keen sense of America’s ‘exceptionalism’? I don’t think so. Make no mistake, he spoke with deliberation because it is in the US’ interests that he said what he said. To be sure, it will resonate well back home in America. For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me give the link to an article in the latest issue of the Wilson Quarterly titled,“Foreign Policy Experts Ignore the Role of Religion in Western Politics”.

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