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Obama Echoes Nehru on How Secure Minorities Keep India Together

Concerns about the dangers of depriving Indian minorities of their rights grow widespread.

Image credit: Politico

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended events especially scripted for his first state visit to the United States, the country’s former president Barack Obama set the tone of his reception. On Thursday, during an interview for CNN, Obama told journalist Christiane Amanpour, “...if I had a conversation with prime minister Modi, who I know well, part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India, at some point, would start pulling apart”. Obama said his country’s current administration should discuss issues related to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in India “honestly” with Modi during his three-day visit.

Not just Obama, but a large section of the United States media and members of the country’s establishment and public, including the Indian diaspora, repeatedly questioned the attitude of the Modi regime towards religious minorities and human rights at home. Consequently, the red-carpet treatment Modi was accorded in their country also came under a shadow. Unlike a large section of India’s press, Amanpour asked Obama how incumbent President Joe Biden should engage with Modi, considering the charges against him of having allowed communitarian conflicts to flourish under his watch. “...we have seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts”, Obama responded. And, he said, it is not just the Muslims who would suffer but the Hindus, too, if divisions make a home for themselves in India.

Expectedly, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders were incensed by the criticism of Modi’s governance. Jay Panda, vice president of the Prime Minister’s party, described Obama’s remarks as “preposterous” in a tweet. Panda charged the former president with pandering to an anti-India crowd, a typical strategy of the ruling party whenever confronted with a critique or questions.

Modi Government Chastised in 2017

Obama’s concerns about the dangers of depriving minorities of their rights and attempts to exclude them from India’s collective life are not new. On 2 December 2017, during a visit to India, he said at a Hindustan Times event in Delhi that in his tenure as president, he had told Modi and his own country’s people that India must prevent sectarian divisions. According to Obama, not presidents or prime ministers but citizens are more important in democracies. If people resolve not to fall prey to sectarian divisions, the politicians who share that vision will get strengthened.

Nehru, Long Before Obama

With the sectarian situation in India coming up for criticism overseas, Indians must remember that it is not just Obama or the American press but Jawaharlal Nehru who had issued warnings about the dangers of sectarianism to India. Nehru’s warnings came long before he became the prime minister of free India. Obviously, the precautions precede Obama’s 2017 and 2023 warnings by multiple decades! In 1927, Nehru wrote in the essay “A Foreign Policy for India” about the need for religious tolerance and protection of minority rights. He appealed for investigations into whether it was economic or religious reasons that had led to the decline in the quality of co-existence of Hindus and Muslims in India.

Three years later, on 15 May 1930, Nehru sounded another alert about India’s stability. He said India would be endangered if religious communities were repeatedly persecuted along identity lines. He wrote, “The history of India and of many of the countries of Europe has demonstrated that there can be no stable equilibrium in any country so long as an attempt is made to crush a minority or to force it to conform to the ways of the majority.”

“There is no surer method,” Nehru said, “of rousing the resentment of the minority and keeping it apart from the rest of the nation than to make it feel that it has not got the freedom to stick to its own ways.” Repression and coercion can never succeed in coercing a minority, he said. In fact, the “mere fear of losing” what it values would make it seem even more “dear”. In other words, oppressive tactics would make a minority more “self-conscious and determined to hold fast” to what it values. On the other hand, Nehru said if minorities were free to adhere to what they regard as their “very own”, that would “lessen its value”.

Indeed, whatever Obama said earlier this week echoed Nehru’s century-old sentiments almost down to the last word.

Foreign Policy Impact of Unequal Treatment

In Nehru’s extensive writings, the relationship between developments in diverse realms of national life and their consequences for India’s foreign policy and stature in the world was a recurring theme. Just two months after independence, he wrote to chief ministers on October 15, 1947, that the Muslim minority, a sizeable segment of India’s population, could never go elsewhere even if they wished. While making it clear there could be no argument on this basic fact, he wrote, “Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner.”

It meant assuring minorities were secure, and their rights as citizens were protected in democratic India. Nehru did not forget to warn that failure on this front would create a “festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it”.

Indeed, it is a signal of the times we live in that Obama is reminding the Indian—and American—people of Nehru’s warnings. Though he does not refer to him, it proves that what Nehru said and wrote in his time were, in fact, fundamental truths that require only a sensitive and intuitive knowledge of India and its future as well as its place in the world.

Not Too Late to Heed Warnings

Nehru linked India’s standing in the world with how its minorities are treated at home—one determines the other. He clarified this by saying, “....pure self-interest, apart from moral considerations, demands that world opinion should be on our side in this matter of treatment of minorities.”

It is a fundamental necessity to accord equal treatment to minorities, Muslims, Christians, and others, as citizens of India. Nehru believed it was how India would safeguard its unity and integrity. Tragically, majoritarianism and Hindutva forces (including the top leadership of the BJP, which rules the country and many states) are polarising society along religious lines with chilling calls for the genocide of Muslims and their social and economic boycotts. These imperil our national unity, and Obama only expressed an apprehension growing quite widespread today.

Alarming developments that can pull India apart are taking place, which reminds us of the challenges India faced in the formative stage of nation-building right after liberation from colonial rule. As dangerous winds blow again, Indians must heed earnest warnings and salvage unity, fraternity and the idea of India.

The author was Officer on Special Duty to President of India KR Narayanan. The views are personal.

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