Nearly three years after he publicly asked India to guard against any efforts to divide its society, former US President Barack Obama said on Friday that when he was US president he had told Prime Minister Narendra Modi “in person” that India must not be split into sectarian lines. Speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Obama also emphasised that India must cherish the fact that Muslims in the country clearly identify themselves as Indians.
“A country shouldn’t be divided into sectarian lines and that is something I have told Prime Minister Modi in person as well as to people in America,” he said.
The 44th US president, who visited India twice between 2009 and 2017 and was visiting for the first time since demitting office, said, “There’s a counter-narrative taking place, at all times, but it’s particularly pronounced now… in Europe, US and sometimes in India where those old tribal impulses reassert themselves under leaders who try to push back and under leaders who try to exploit them.”
He said, “I know Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes in the unity of India. My goal here is not to disclose every private conversation I have. I think his (Modi’s) impulses are to recognise Indian unity. I think he firmly believes unity is necessary for the progress of the nation.”
Asked about his equation with Modi, Obama also referred to the previous prime minister Manmohan Singh, saying that the two leaders shared a focus on India-US ties.
“I like him (Narendra Modi). I think he has a vision for the country. I was also great friends with Dr Manmohan Singh. He laid the foundation of the modern Indian economy… The unifying theme in both leaders (Modi and Singh) during my tenure was the focus on India-US relations,” he said.
Following his remarks at the summit, the former US president met Modi over lunch at Hyderabad House. Later, the Prime Minister posted on Twitter: “It was a pleasure to meet, once again, former president @BarackObama, and learn about the new initiatives being taken forward under his leadership at the @ObamaFoundation and his perspectives on further strengthening India-US strategic partnership.”
At the summit, Obama said, “For a country like India where there is a Muslim population that is successful, integrated and considers itself as Indian, which is not the case in some other countries, this should be nourished and cultivated.”
He said that in a democracy the most important office was not that of the president or prime minister but that of citizens who need to question themselves about which ideology they encourage by supporting a particular politician.
“When you see a politician doing something questionable, ask yourself ‘am I supporting this?’ Politicians are like mirrors which reflect the community’s view. If communities across India are saying they won’t fall prey to division, then it will strengthen the hand of politicians who feel that way,” he said.
According to him, people often “see the differences between each other much too vividly and miss the commonalities”.
On January 27, 2015, a day after he had attended the Republic Day celebrations as chief guest, Obama had invoked the Indian Constitution while delivering a powerful 33-minute speech at the Siri Fort auditorium. “Every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination. India will succeed so long it is not splintered on religious lines… We have to guard against any efforts to divide us on sectarian lines or any other thing,” Obama had said.