President Obama’s comments that religious conflict has produced “acts of intolerance” in India that would have shocked the country’s peace icon, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, provoked a stream of outrage in India on Friday.
Obama made the remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday, which also raised the ire of conservative Christians in the United States.
“Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity,” Obama said, “but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs.”
The “acts of intolerance” would have “shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation,” Obama said, employing the honorific used in India for the revered freedom fighter.
“So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith," he added. "In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.”
At the prayer breakfast, Obama was seated near the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has long lived in exile in the hills in Northern India after fleeing Chinese repression. This irony was not lost on critics here.
“The best example of India’s tolerance was the Dalai Lama sitting next to Obama,” India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley said Friday, according to the news channel NDTV. He also said that India has "a huge cultural history of tolerance; any aberrations do not alter that history." Social media also weighed in:
Obama recently returned from a trip to India Jan. 25-27 where he and his wife were warmly received by both the country and its new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who served him tea in the garden of the stately Hyderabad House.
But the burgeoning friendship between the two men has not completely overtaken longstanding American concerns about Modi’s history as a Hindu nationalist or new worries about the country’s extremist right wing.
The prime minister was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 on the grounds he did not do enough to stop Hindu-Muslim violence as leader of the state of Gujarat in 2002.
Obama had also referred to the country’s history of religious conflict during his final speech in New Delhi on January 27, saying “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines.” White House officials said later said the speech was about inclusivity and the power of diversity and was not aimed at Modi or his government.