While he didn’t visit the Sikh faith’s holiest site during his trip to India two weeks ago, President Obama did create a bit of a stir as he openly advocated for religious freedom and peaceful coexistence of faiths in India, citing in his speech the mass murder of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012:
Obama said no society is immune from man’s darkest impulses, as he raised the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that killed six people. “In that moment of shared grief, our two countries reaffirmed a basic truth, as we must again today, that every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination,” Obama said.
It was a significant statement by the President, as India’s religious minorities have seen a growing Hindu nationalist sentiment in India since the rise to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP.
“The entire world is speaking about the fears of religious minorities in India…For President Obama, this is as direct as he can get.” John Dayal, spokesman for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights. (Source: Yahoo! News)
It is interesting that the President would address such issues given the reticence of other US politicians in addressing such concerns about India. It was only a few months ago that US House Representative Ami Bera hedged on acknowledging the massacre of Sikhs in November, 1984 at the hands of Indian officials, on the premise of non-interference with India’s internal affairs and a focus on business and trade. The Member of Congress (and its only Indian American) accompanied the President on this trip to India.
It is not surprising that Obama’s remarks in India, and later in Saudi Arabia when referencing India, caused debate and a defensive reaction from India’s nationalists:
Indian television blistered with debate today: Were acts of religious discrimination in India being exaggerated? Was the president guilty of a double-standard when he mentioned India and not Saudi Arabia? Was the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a self-declared Hindu nationalist, deliberate?
We cannot gloss over the significance of Obama’s remarks in India’s capital city, which was the site of the largest and most egregious massacre of innocent Sikh men, women and children in recent history. While India has struggled for three decades to deliver even the semblance of appropriate justice to the perpetrators of the November, 1984 pogrom, that the US President raises the issue of religious freedom and cites the Oak Creek massacre in New Delhi should be an eye-opener for Indian officials as they then consider the plight of the country’s religious minorities today.