Obama’s comments over treatment of Indian Muslims trigger sharp political riposte in India

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Political and social media fulminations continue in India over former US President Barack Obama’s fairly anodyne observations about the treatment of the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims.

The fact that two senior cabinet ministers, both of whom happen to be members of the powerful Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), felt compelled to make remarkably derisive comments in response to Obama indicates perhaps deeper political gamesmanship being afoot.

The first comments came from India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman who said, “He was commenting on Indian Muslims … having bombed Muslim-majority countries from Syria to Yemen … during his presidency. Why would anyone listen to any allegations from such people?” Her comments came on Sunday.

On the heels of those, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said, “Obama ji should not forget that people of India believe in the concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The world is a family) and consider all people as members of one global family. He (Obama) should also think about himself as to how many Muslim countries he has attacked (as US president).”

“I want to tell you with confidence that even Muslim countries would not have all the 72 sects of the community. It is only in India that you will find them all,” he was quoted as saying by the Indian media. His comments came on the sidelines of a security conclave in Jammu.

The two senior ministers, both of whom have the ear of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were responding to comments by Obama in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour while answering a question from her. “The protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning,” Obama said.

“By the way, 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, starts pulling apart.

And we have seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts. So that would be contrary to the interests not just of Muslim Indians but also Hindu Indians. I think it is important to be able to talk about these things honestly. Things are not going to be as clean as you like, because the world is complicated,” Obama said.

It is likely that the reactions from Sitharaman and Singh, even though seemingly in the heat of the moment, were also equally calibrated. Obama’s observations handed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a tailormade opportunity to score some political points for the domestic audience. It also came across as if the prime minister did not particularly mind that two senior members of his cabinet were letting themselves go on Obama, whom Modi has described as a friend with whom he is on the first name basis.

It is tempting to characterize the spat as a war of words waged by proxies on both sides. Obama may be a private citizen now, but he also happens to be a hugely popular former president whose views carry a lot of weight within the Democratic Party, particularly that large segment that insists on maintaining the primacy of human rights and personal and religious freedoms as the cornerstone of a Democratic Administration’s dealings with any foreign leader. There are those who argue that what Biden could not say candidly to Modi, Obama did with perhaps the same impact.

It is remarkable that after a manifestly successful state visit to Washington, BJP grandees think it appropriate to let its impact be distracted by such sharp ripostes to a former US president and that too an overarching figure within the Democratic Party.

It is possible that the comments from the Indian ministers was part of a strategy in the runup to the 2024 general elections in India.

Interestingly, India’s foreign ministry, known as Ministry of External Affairs, which would have normally dealt with comments such as from Obama, did not offer any. Typically, once the country’s prime minister has made a specific comment about a subject, especially one as controversial as the treatment of Muslims under his dispensation, his cabinet members refrain from offering their view.

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