America’s Dangerous Obsession with Religious Conflict in India

America’s Dangerous Obsession with Religious Conflict in India
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When Prime Minister Modi was in the United States of America over a month ago in June, former US President Barack Obama, in an interview with CNN, remarked that India, a country of about twenty percent minority population (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc.), would start “pulling apart” owing to the threats to the “rights of ethnic and religious minorities”.

“If the president meets with Prime Minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India — that’s something worth mentioning. 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,” said Obama.

This is not the first time when Mr. Obama has expressed his alarming opinions about “the grim and dangerous features of religious intolerance in India”. Back in 2015, he remarked that the starkness of religious intolerance in India would have “shocked Gandhi”.

And Mr. Obama isn’t the only American preaching or remarking over the religious conditions in India. A month prior to Obama’s latest remark, in May, the US State Department released a religious freedom report for 2022. In it, as usual, were what they call concerns regarding the situation of religious minorities in India. The report expressed concern that religious conversions, which most of the time involve Christian evangelicals attempting to convert Hindus, are not being allowed in a few states; and that Muslims in India face systemic discrimination. A senior US official asked India to condemn “persistent” religious violence in India.

Using the same report as a cudgel, 75 US lawmakers wrote to their President  Biden, advising him that he discuss the issue of religious intolerance in India when Prime Minister Modi came on a state visit. Discussion about religion in India is perceived by these lawmakers as part of the core of US foreign policy. US senator Bernie Sanders said Modi’s “aggressive Hindu nationalism” has “left little space for India’s religious minorities”.

Similar statements regarding religion in India and US foreign policy were given by a senior US Senator and the then-ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, in 2016. Cardin said religious intolerance in India, particularly with respect to the anti-conversion laws, poses a “national challenge” to India. Six years later, in 2022, another US Senator James Lankford urged the US government to hold robust discussions with India on religious freedom after the USCIRF designated India as “a country of particular concern” in its annual report on religious freedom.

In its response to the statement by Barack Obama, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman pointed out the inherent hypocrisy of Obama raking up the issue of religious minorities after bombing “six Muslim-dominated countries” in his eight years in office. While this does highlight Mr. Obama’s classic doublespeak, what it does not tell the common Indian is why such doublespeak is dangerous.

The US has a long history of presenting this preachy attitude and attempting to school nations on how nations are run. On the face of it, it appears as a rather harmless and high-sounding moral talk but in the geo-political context, the moral talk too often transforms into leverage, or indeed in some cases, into a tool to browbeat countries/leaders, or subvert nations. So long as the US believes itself to be the upholder of democratic freedom and values and uses it against the developing world, it assumes for itself the right to enforce such “values”. Such an assumption often leads to souring of the relations between the countries rather than strengthening them. US senators instead should spend more time discussing their own country’s involvement in actually curbing democratic freedom and destroying the democratic values in other countries.

For instance, we now know about the US’s alleged involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected and popular Imran Khan government in Pakistan. According to a classified Pakistani government document obtained by The Intercept, the US State Department encouraged the Pakistani government in a March 7, 2022, meeting to remove Imran Khan as prime minister over his neutrality on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As per the classified document, labeled “cipher,” the US was furious at Imran Khan for visiting Moscow shortly after the Russian war on Ukraine began. So, to teach Khan a lesson, US officials used both carrots and sticks to overthrow a democratically elected government in Pakistan.

This is a far more malicious and dangerous assault on democratic freedom, sovereignty, and liberal values than whatever India has done under Modi, if at all it has done, since India does not interfere in the affairs of other countries unlike the US. Yet the Western media, owing its loyalty to the US establishment, and the reactionary Indian English media, pays no heed to such malicious power plays. US senators ignore such actions of their own nation because how else would Mr. Preachy preach if he acknowledges his own undemocratic actions? The bombing of the six nations that the Finance Minister Sitharaman spoke of was India’s offer of evidence of the double standards of US lawmakers.

Barack Obama, despite his suave and amiable manner, not only embodies the same attitude and values, but fooled most of us into believing he was different. Back in 2016, when Obama toured the site of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the US dropped two atomic bombs during the Second World War, Obama refused to apologize for the bombing. He excused his way out of it by leaving the responsibility upon “difficult decisions taken during the war”. Obama completely ignored, or perhaps intentionally hid, that the dropping of the bombs was not a necessity to end the war. And yet he, like other American leaders, activists, the media, and sundry others considers himself fit to teach others about tolerance and freedom. This is not to say that one’s past remarks should be brought up to discredit one’s current opinion, but to highlight how far the US establishment is willing to go to excuse itself of evils it accuses others of practicing. This is to highlight how the US, as the world’s preacher of morality, leverages it to perform its dark deeds as the world’s policeman.

India’s Constitution, as PM Modi highlighted, is secular and well-equipped to protect the rights of minorities. The system is impartial and not discriminatory towards minorities. On the contrary, there is scope to argue that the system, or the Constitution, is intentionally discriminatory towards the majority, as in not allowing the majority to have control over its institutions and in not providing state funding to the majority for promoting religious education. To say that not allowing Christian evangelicals to convert Hindus to Christianity is curbing religious freedom is not just misplaced but cussed and mischievous. And the US repeatedly attempting to intimidate Indian leaders on religious freedom issues does more to create discontent among Indians than goodwill toward the US.

India, now, is self-assured and stands on its own carefully constructed base of global geo-politics. When Russia began its war on Ukraine, India refrained from choosing sides, maintaining neutrality. This has led many in the West to pressure India, for the Western establishment can see little more than beyond its own nose. Many Western think tanks, academics, and journalists demanded that India take a stand, ignoring that India has already taken a stand, that of neutrality. For a developing nation seeking cooperation everywhere, and with a goal of reducing global conflict, India cannot afford to play in American or European games of thrones.

It also degrades the prospects of better cooperation between India and the West, especially at such a critical juncture where the global order is undergoing a major change. The Russo-Ukraine war is still advancing without any signs of slowing down, or with any signs of NATO-assisted Ukraine’s victory. The global economy is damaged and China’s stature both grows larger and weaker by the day. India naturally becomes one of the most crucial players in the global geopolitical game. US and Indian interests align vis-à-vis China and the Indo-Pacific. But the US mistakes India to be another of its “poodle” allies that essentially has to follow American diktat both at home and abroad. India is a civilization of its own, far more mature than the brash, violence-prone American civilization, and has better understanding of complex, diverse societies than the US ever displayed.

In the sense of preserving unique cultures, India effortlessly performs better than the US “melting pot” which instinctively seeks to homogenize and remake others. The US assimilates different groups by changing their dress, language, thought, and philosophy of life, whereas India assimilates while preserving all of it. For all its faults, the fate of diversity in India is far stronger than in the US, and is a testament to the Indian establishment’s capabilities in protecting and nurturing diversity. Hence the lecturing and unnecessary preaching to India by the American ruling class is not just repulsive but hypocritical.

As Abhinav Kumar, serving IPS officer, wrote “The record of America as a defender of democracy in foreign countries has been patchy, to say the least. Generations of right-wing dictators in Latin America, Africa, and Asia will testify to the pragmatism and flexibility of American foreign policy on that count. The woke self-righteousness that pervades the ivory towers of American academia and in certain sections of its foreign policy establishment is extremely comfortable telling us what to do in the so-called Third World”.

Inward looking, the US can find several faults in its own democracy. Several videos of Christian influencers and leaders abusing and mocking Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the Republican presidential candidates, are on the internet, receiving great applause from White Christian supremacists. Vivek Ramaswamy is their target not because of his political views or vision but because of his religion and ethnicity.

Hank Kunneman, a pro-Trump pastor, devoted much of his sermon at the Lord of Hosts Church in Omaha, Nebraska, saying that Ramaswamy running for president was an insult to God. “We are in danger as a country,” he said. “You’re gonna have some dude put his hand on something other than the Bible? You’re going to let him put all of his strange gods up in the White House?” Kunneman hectored his hollering crowd of Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists.

A 2014 research paper emphasized how immigrants belonging to non-White and non-Christian religious minorities in the US face stark discrimination which leads to the subsequent under-utilization of their skills. This essentially means that even non-White, non-Christian people in the US have to face stark discrimination leading to under-achievement. If systemic discrimination is what is invoked by US senators then perhaps the best place for them to start with is in the US itself.

Yogendra Singh Thakur

Yogendra Singh Thakur is a freelance columnist from Betul, Madhya Pradesh. He has written essays for IndiaFacts, Swarajya Magazine, Pragyata Magazine, and OpIndia. He is pursuing a BA, majoring in History, Political Science, and Sociology.