I am not surprised with the statement of Ex-President of United State, Barack Obama, who comments to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in the early morning of Thursday. It seems that the tool-kits made to be activated much before the Indian Prime Minister about to meet with his US counterpart. It was interesting to note, or perhaps with a perfect sense of timing (depending on your predilection), the former US president’s mean punches landed on India when prime minister Narendra Modi is in Washington DC on an official state visit and is being courted with the warmest and fullest attention, protocol, hospitality, respect, and recognition by not just the Joe Biden administration, but also by the American political establishment in a rare bipartisan show of unity.
Obama drew a dubious parallel between the second-largest minority community in world’s largest democracy and the state of Muslims in China who have been incarcerated in “reeducation camps” by the Chinese authoritarian state. And the ex-US president did so on a day Modi achieved a unique honour of addressing for the second time a joint session of the US Congress where he received a rockstar reception and was nearly mobbed by American lawmakers.
As a public figure and a still very popular leader among the Democrats, Obama knew very well the impact his words may be able to create a parallel narrative that suits millions of Indian haters. So, the question is, what objective did he hope to meet?
Before we explore his motivations, a quick glance at Obama’s words is in order. Amanpour seemed to equate Modi — a prime minister elected by an overwhelming majority in the world’s largest democracy and the globe’s most popular leader by far (as indicated by American intelligence firm Morning Consult in a survey released Thursday) — with Xi Jinping, the unelected chairman of China’s one-party authoritarian regime, and suggested that Biden’s hosting of Modi is questionable.
Obama took the hint and drove home the bogus narrative with a set of fact-free, outlandish and outrageous remarks.
He said: “it is important for the President United States to say that if you have Uyghurs in China, who are being placed in mass camps, and ‘re-educated’. That’s a problem. That’s a challenge to all of us,” and in the same breath, added, “I think it is true that if the president (Biden) meets with prime minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India, that’s something worth mentioning.
“And by the way, if I had a conversation with 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 India at some point, starts pulling apart.” He added further that “we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts. So that would be contrary to the interests not just a Muslim India, but also Hindu India.”
Obama is not only being dishonest, but also diabolical and vicious in issuing a veiled threat of balkanizing India. If we add a bit of context, then his words appear even more sinister beneath the veil of innocuousness.
India has been partitioned once on religious lines because a majority of Muslims decided that they cannot cohabit with a ‘Hindu’ India. While the breakaway nation became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, India declared itself a ‘secular state’ where minority rights are not only protected by the Constitution, but they also enjoy some priviledges that are denied to the Hindu majority even under Modi’s supposedly “Hindu nationalist government”. The Muslims, for instance, still enjoy the liberty of following their personal law under the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, that is not codified but “declaratory”. In contrast, the Hindu personal laws have been reformed and codified.
In this context, how credible is Obama’s claim that the rights of Muslim minorities are not being protected in ‘Hindu India’, and that ‘Muslim India’ may “pull apart”?
Let’s fact-check Obama’s unsubstantiated assertions. A major survey by an American nonpartisan think tank, Pew Research Center, based on a face-to-face survey of 29,999 Indian adults between late 2019 and early 2020 on religious identity, nationalism and tolerance in Indian society, was released in June 2021. It found that 91% Hindus, 89% Muslims and Christians, 82% Sikhs, 93% Buddhists, and 85% Jains “feel they are very free to practice their religion.” Apart from this, “across the country, most people (84%) say that to be ‘truly Indian,’ it is very important to respect all religions. Indians also are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community,” found Pew.
On Obama’s claim that India may experience “large internal conflicts”, data shows the exact opposite. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of riot cases registered between 1970 and 2021 prove that India has been at its most peaceful in 50 years as riots have been on a steady decline.
In a nutshell, minority rights in India are not only well protected, an overwhelming majority of Muslims assert that they are free to pursue their religion, and internal strife are at an all-time low. Obama’s rhetoric of ‘Hindu India’ and ‘Muslim India’ is a malevolent attempt at stirring the communal pot by hammering at India’s communal fault lines. It is a despicable attempt by a former president of the United States. Even more reprehensible is his reductionist comparison of Muslims in India and China.
Since Obama seeks to take the moral high ground, how secure are racial minorities in America? Are their rights protected?
Pew surveys on discrimination against minorities in America, conducted at different times (2019 and 2021) prove that majority of Americans believe Blacks, Asians and Hispanics in the US are discriminated against. According to the 2021 survey by Pew, “large shares of Americans say there is at least some discrimination against several groups in the United States, including 80% who say there is a lot of or some discrimination against Black people, 76% who say this about Hispanic people and 70% who see discrimination against Asian people.”
The state of racial inequality in America is concerning. The 2019 poll found that Blacks in America “are particularly gloomy about the country’s racial progress. More than 8-in-10 black adults say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today, including 59% who say it affects it a great deal. About 8-in-10 blacks (78%) say the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, and fully half say it’s unlikely that the country will eventually achieve racial equality.”
As a former president who enjoyed two full terms in office, Obama must share a part of the blame.
Besides, since Obama sounded as if he was very concerned about the state of Muslims in India, what has been his own record in office when it comes to safeguarding the rights of Muslims as the most powerful leader in the world?
According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, in Obama’s last year in office in 2016, the United States dropped 26,172 bombs in seven countries. These are: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. As is evident, these are all Muslim-majority nations. The data amounts to an average of 72 bombs every day — the equivalent of three bombs an hour, and according to CFR, even this estimate “is undoubtedly low”.
So much for Obama’s “concerns”.
The question then turns to Obama’s motivations. There are two theories in play.
One, Obama willfully undermined the Biden administration at a time when the White House is rolling out its red carpet for an Indian prime minister, and the US is seeking to take bilateral ties with India to the next level. This is likely the symptom of internal tension within the ruling Democratic party, where a faction is unhappy over Biden’s decision to go for a rerun in 2024.
There’s buzz in some circles that the former First Lady may run for office next year.
The Obamas are still incredibly powerful in Washington, and the former president’s relationship with his erstwhile vice-president and the current POTUS has been a matter of debate. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Obama purposely timed his outrageous remarks to cause maximum embarrassment to the Biden administration.
The second theory doing the rounds is that this was a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine by the Democrats. Biden and his team didn’t want to raise the contentious issues of “human rights” and “state of minorities” in India — a specious narrative propagated by the left-liberal media, activist, ISI lobby and academic circles in the US that also includes a section of the Democratic party — publicly with Modi, and therefore Obama was appointed to deliver a sermon and assuage the base.
However, if the second theory is accurate, it is debatable whether the routine affects Modi’s state visit in any substantial way and what’s more, it imposes costs on the Democrats’ own government and undermines the message the Biden administration is trying to send to India.
Be that as it may, whether it was Obama’s attempt at undermining his own government or the Democrats addressing multiple constituencies at once with a clever plan, the comments do introduce a level of discord in ties that appears incompatible with the current mood in Washington and New Delhi. Hope, New Delhi must take the cognizance of Obama’s statement on the right time and place that it feels to have.