The first public reactions to U.S. President Barack Obama’s soul-stirring “Address to the People of India” at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi before winding up his three-day historic trip to the country on January 27 have, rather predictably, displayed a binary logic. A good section instantly saw in Mr. Obama’s candid views on “dealing with diversity of beliefs and of faiths” and the need to uphold the constitutionally guaranteed ‘Right to Freedom of Religion’ without fear of persecution or discrimination, a well-meant yet stinging reminder to the Narendra Modi-led BJP Government to rein in its religious fundamentalist elements. But an equally vocal section seemed to resent his homily to a nation whose “Sanatana Dharma has been extremely tolerant” of all religions. However, holistically there is more substance to Mr. Obama’s 34-minute speech, set in the context of two emerging scenarios. First, the possibility that America can be “India’s best partner” in a whole range of activities including the ‘next wave’ of economic growth, and second, at a more personal level how India for Mr. Obama represents “an intersection of two men who have always inspired me” — Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi — in striving for equity and peace in a non-violent way.
It is from this perceptual bedrock that the American President has sought to re-engage India on a much wider socio-political canvas of cultural pluralism and religious diversity under an overarching universal humanism. Mr. Obama’s admission that “in our lives, Michelle and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith”, may at best elevate traditional religious notions like ‘God’ and ‘all of humanity being God’s children’, to a secular plane in a complex, interdependent world in guarding against sectarian divisions and dark violence which threaten to rapidly undermine ‘foundational human values’. This universalism for Mr. Obama, looking beyond “any difference in religion or tribe and rejoice in the beauty of every soul,” seem to be first premises for articulating a new global ethic of peace and harmony. The entry point may be Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or any other faith, but the goal is enabling ‘compassion and empathy’ in human affairs. This is a utopian task, but this is what ‘world leaders’ like India and the U.S. should be doing, he hinted. The late Philosopher-President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in his work, The Spirit of Religion said: “The world has got together as a body; it is groping for its soul… If we can have a United Nations Organization, cannot we have a United Religions Organization?” Mr. Obama’s plea for religious freedom aims to give that vision a chance under very different circumstances.