Sad India needs Barack Obama to tell us to ‘cherish and nurture’ our Muslims

Angshukanta Chakraborty
Angshukanta ChakrabortyDec 01, 2017 | 19:27

Sad India needs Barack Obama to tell us to ‘cherish and nurture’ our Muslims

In January 2015, for its Republic Day advertisement published in various dailies, the Modi government, intentionally or not, removed the words “secular and socialist” from the Constitution’s Preamble, which was printed in the full-page ads. It led to the “Constitution ad row”, and many gave their two cents on the ominous nature of the mistake, including this writer.

However, US President Barack Obama, who was the guest of honour at the Republic Day parade, “reminded”, as it were, everyone watching the gallantries at Rajpath, or glued to their TV screens, that India was indeed “secular”, and that this was one of its most wonderful qualities.


Much like the right to privacy, which was ingrained in the other fundamental rights, and emanated from them, the idea of secularism has been integral to the idea of India, as envisioned by the founding fathers and mothers of the nation-state. That former PM Indira Gandhi inserted the word secular and socialist in 1976 in the Preamble, via the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution during the height of Emergency, didn’t change that important nature of the word, and what it entailed.

Similarly, POTUS 44’s repeated reminders to Indians – that its minorities are an integral part of the democratic set-up, integrated like in few other countries, in numbers as large as that in India – are coming at a time when that basic idea itself is threatened, the idea of secularism.

Today, Barack Obama, in his first speech in India since his presidency got over, emphasised on that simple, elementary, yet oft-forgotten aspect of Indian life. Attending the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Obama said: “For a country like India where there is a Muslim population that is successful, integrated and considers itself as Indian, this should be nourished and cultivated.”


This is politely putting and paraphrasing what the former US president had said in 2015, at his speech on Republic Day from Siri Fort: “Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.”

It’s important that Obama’s words then and now reverberate with the wisdom to mind the portentous bends of time, the casual bigotry of our elected leaders, the lynchings and assaults that go unpunished, the “climate of fear” acknowledged by even a former vice-president, Hamid Ansari. “Muslims feel persecuted” is the refrain from every sensible soul, yet the government doesn’t care, and flaunts its carelessness at every step.

Why do we need an Obama to tell us that we must cherish and nurture our “large Muslim population”, which, at roughly 172 million and comprising 14 per cent of the country’s  people, is the second-biggest community, with a rich, resplendent history? Why do we need the president of a foreign country, who has himself been the victim of the notorious “birther controversy”, in which he was (falsely) claimed to be a Muslim in order to “discredit” his presidency, the first Black American one in the history of the 241-year-old USA, to tell us that Muslims among us must be cultivated?


That’s because we aren’t cultivating Muslims among us, because it’s not cultivation when fear is permanent among a community, when constitutional safeguards are squandered by the lawmakers themselves, when organised theft of livelihood is arranged to cause “economic terrorism” among the minorities, when cow bureaucracy becomes a way of harassing a man with a certain name sporting a skullcap, or not, when burqa becomes artificially synonymous with imagined bondage and repression.


Obama is an emissary from a bygone era, a time that India has either lost or is on a fast-track to losing completely. That was the time of communal harmony as an ideal, enshrined in campy Bollywood films like Amar Akbar Anthony, that spoke of national integration as a nice thing. So, POTUS 44, whose presidency has been followed by Donald Trump in the White House, is indeed nostalgic of a time that, imperfect though it was, at least aspired to harmony, equality before the eyes of law, constitutionality, freedom of speech, and many other intellectual hallmarks of slightly better days in democracies like India and United States of America.

The president feels the pinch of the parallels between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. His historic election in 2008 and then re-election in 2012 are somehow now blamed for the reverse swing that the country has now witnessed, and as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observes, white paranoia has seen a meteoric rise making Obama a figure of hate for the racial supremacists who now occupy the White House. The 44th POTUS sees much of his good work gasping for legislative breath in his own country. Little doubt then that he wouldn’t instinctively understand the plight of post-2014 India.

Of course, he couches his criticism in politeness, when he says Prime Minister Narendra Modi is his friend. However, friendships these days remain a tortuous terrain, split wide open by political and ideological differences, though politicians are skillful at masking their mutual differences to emphasise on the common ground. And that common ground is a secular democracy.

Obama’s reminder should make us very, very sad. Not only because the situation has worsened and the climate of fear has intensified since January 2015, from love jihad and ghar wapsi campaigns to the organised violence, economic thefts, persecution, demonisation on social media and on the “nationalist” TV channels, but because the repetition in itself is an acknowledgement of the dire straits the minorities are in here. The point about integration is important because India’s history, politics and culture, particularly in north India which is seeing the rise and rise of Hindutva under the Modi government’s watch, has been, for centuries, a confluence.

Barack Obama is perhaps in the same place as many Indian seculars, doing his job to issue periodic reminders, saying the right thing, trying to halt this juggernaut of cruelty in the name of religious or racial supremacy.

But I don’t expect his fair-weather friend Narendra Modi to pay any attention to his wisdom anymore.

Last updated: December 01, 2017 | 19:43
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