Arun Jaitley defends ‘history of tolerance’

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:03 am IST

Published - February 06, 2015 06:08 pm IST - New Delhi

The Union government has reacted sharply to a second speech by U.S. President Barack Obama referring to religious intolerance in India. “Aberrations don’t alter India’s history of tolerance,” Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said here on Friday.

In what appeared to be a reiteration of his remarks on religious freedom in Delhi, Mr. Obama said in Washington on Thursday, “Acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji” had occurred “in past years” in India.

Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast along with the Dalai Lama, Mr. Obama called India “a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs.”

Countering Mr. Obama, Mr. Jaitley told presspersons, “The best example of [Indian] tolerance was sitting next to President Obama when he made the statement. That is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is part of that tolerance that he found it comfortable and India found it comfortable to absorb him in society here.”

The Congress, which had called Mr. Obama’s earlier comments a criticism of the government’s record, amid reports of Hindu conversion or “Ghar Vapsi” by groups allied to the BJP, repeated its view.

“Maybe, Mr. Obama said this on the basis of what he saw from PM Modi’s vision,” party spokesperson Ajay Maken said.

While the Centre chosen not to react to Mr. Obama’s previous comments, it is clearly worried about the sustained references by the U.S.

Obama’s remarks on religious freedom worry officials

Of some worry, said officials, was whether the references pointed to a more formal classification of India by the administration. In 2014, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India in a “Tier 2 category” of “countries of particular concern”, along with Afghanistan and Russia, and the 2015 report is expected in a couple of months. In both reports there were specific mentions of recent communal incidents including the Muzaffarnagar riots of September 2013, and specific references to the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

President Obama’s comments, like his speech at the Siri Fort Stadium a week before, came from a prepared text, and are likely to have been carefully thought out.

At Siri Fort, President Obama was addressing young people when he warned that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.”

The speech had invoked strong political reactions in India and after a week of the debate boiling over, the White House clarified that the remarks had been “misconstrued.” But just a day after the clarification, came Mr. Obama’s new remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, clearly mentioning his concerns over religious intolerance in India.

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