The combination could not have been more bizarre: a Soviet-style grand military parade lasting two hours; a British-Indian imperial venue in front of the former Viceregal Lodge; jingoistic display of a range of armaments, many of heavy Russian make; stifling air pollution that exceeds Beijing’s levels and is estimated to have cut Obama’s expected lifespan by six hours; sorties by brand-new US-made warplanes to showcase sophistication; colorfully dressed mustachioed soldiers riding caparisoned camels; motorcycle stunts with multiple riders that would put virtuoso circus artists to shame…
Barrack Obama drank it all in as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day (January 26), the first US president to have been invited thus, and also the first president to visit India twice while in office. Obama arrived in style, with a several hundred–strong business delegation, officials from numerous departments and agencies, and an entourage of 1,600, including forty sniffer dogs, some of them of officer rank and hence assigned suites with their handlers in the same five-star hotels as other high-level functionaries. The center of India’s capital was taken over, scoured upside down, “sanitized” and “secured” by US Secret Service operatives days before Obama arrived.
Obama had more than half a dozen rounds of talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on economic, diplomatic and strategic relations, and signed more than fifteen agreements on military cooperation and arms sales, investment and trade, renewable energy and nuclear power, “smart cities” and visas for information technology workers, and on joint projects in defense and space technology. He signed a 5,700-word joint statement with Modi and performed at five high-profile public-speaking events over three days.
Obama left India immediately after making a town hall speech where he appealed for respect for the freedom to practice, preach and propagate religion, stressed the importance of religious pluralism, and said, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith…”
This was Obama’s only reference, albeit oblique, to the concerns aroused by the ascent of Modi’s right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national power last May, and by the campaign launched by its even more extreme associates like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or National Volunteer Corps, an all-male Hindu-supremacist group akin to a secret society, with a history of admiration for Mussolini and Hitler) to physically attack Muslims and Christians or bully them into “reconverting” to Hinduism.
Obama was speaking not to Modi’s ministers, but to a 1,500-strong audience mainly comprising students. The president made this intervention probably under pressure from US-based human rights campaigners to address the threat to religious freedom and diversity in Modi’s India. Some of the campaigners were groups like Human Rights Watch, which successfully lobbied the State Department for a decade to refuse a visa to Modi on account of terrible religious violence in Gujarat in 2002 on his watch, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were butchered.