Former US President Barack Obama calls out Indian Prime Minister Modi’s poor record on protecting Muslims
In a surprise TV interview on CNN last week and at the time of the state visit of the Indian Prime Minister to the US, Barack Obama, the former President of the United States, publicly commented on Narendra Modi’s failure to protect the rights of minority Muslims in a majority Hindu India.
The CNN interviewer, Christiane Amanpour, referenced a ‘threat to democracy’ from ‘illiberal democrats’, clearly including Narendra Modi within that classification, before asking Obama how US President Biden should engage with Prime Minister Modi. The former US President responded by explaining how when in office, he had navigated what he referred to as the ‘complicated’ process of dealing with allies who did not in his opinion ‘run ideally democratic governments’, but with whom it was essential to maintain diplomatic relations. He acknowledged that it was wholly ‘appropriate’ where possible for the US President – whether in private or public, to challenge ‘trends that are troubling’. He said:
‘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.’
He added that such an outcome would be contrary to India’s interests, before underlining the fact that during his administration he had shared a warm relationship with the Indian Prime Minister.
Obama's comments create a media storm
Barack Obama’s comments were immediately re-broadcast across multiple platforms in India as supporters of Modi’s BJP party became increasingly vocal in condemnation of the remarks.
India’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, expressed her shock at the comments and referred to the hypocrisy of the former US President saying:
‘He was commenting on Indian Muslims…having bombed Muslim-majority countries from Syria to Yemen…during his presidency…why should anyone listen to any allegations from such people?’
India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh rejected Obama’s comments saying that India has never discriminated against people on the basis of their religion. He added:
‘People should try to understand India’s secular character…[they] should also think about how many Muslim countries they have attacked’
Controversially, Assam Chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, published a tweet in response to the question asking whether anybody had filed a lawsuit against Obama for ‘hurting sentiments’ with his remarks on India, to which he replied that there were many ‘Hussain Obama’s in India itself’, that needed to be taken care of. Opposition politicians have accused Sarma of issuing a ‘veiled threat’ to India’s Muslim population.
In a press conference with US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Modi, made comments, which were clearly a response to the media storm over the former US President’s comments. He said there was ‘no space for any discrimination’ under his government.
The remarks from Obama undoubtedly will have impacted on the tone of the state visit, although Biden has subsequently been public in stating that ties between the US and India are ‘stronger than ever’. He hinted that he had followed up with Prime Minister Modi during the visit, on issues raised by the US State Department about concerns over the treatment of Muslims and other religious minorities in India under Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party.