The big question we must ask ourselves when we discuss President Barack Obama’s Siri Fort speech today (27 January) is this: did we all hear the same speech? Or did we dissect it according to our individual biases?

If one were to take a look at the buzz on social media, the traditional Modi-baiters saw in Obama’s speech, and especially his message of religious tolerance and diversity, as an oblique criticism of the government and its Parivar backers. Thin-skinned Modi-bhakts were upset that Obama gave us a lecture on secularism when America is far from being a just society.

In fact, what we try to read in Obama’s speech – or, for that matter anybody’s speech – tells us more about ourselves than about the person delivering it.

Those who believe that Obama had the Sangh Parivar in mind when he talked about “freedom of conscience and….. right to freely profess and practice and propagate religion” should also ponder another sentence: “In both our countries, in all countries…freedom of religion is the utmost responsibility of the government but also the responsibility of every person.” (Read here and here for some of Obama’s Siri Fort quotes).

He said both countries, not only India. He was probably thinking aloud about freedom of conscience, which is endangered everywhere, including America, where Christian fundamentalists are busy demonising Islam.

His intent became clear when he mentioned the Sikh Gurdwara massacre in Wisconsin. The fact is the US and Europe probably house more Islamophobes than India. Obama himself has been the victim of a bitter Christian right-wing smear campaign that which saw him as a closet Muslim, thanks to his middle name “Hussain.”

On the other hand, the internet Hindus on twitter seemed to recoil with a guilty conscience on his call for religious freedom. One wonders why. “Ghar wapsi” is nothing if not an effort to reconvert people who left the Hindu faith, and surely freedom of religion applies as much here as in the reverse. Surely, Obama could not have meant a one-way freedom of conscience and religion. He may not back “ghar wapsi”, but it is logically implied when he said article 25 of the Indian constitution guarantees “the right to freely profess and practise and propagate religion.”

Then again, Obama said this: “Every person has a right to practice the faith that they choose and to practice no faith at all and to do so free of persecution, fear or discrimination.” What is objectionable in this? There are, arguably, more critics of atheism in god-fearing America than in India. Heading towards Saudi Arabia from India, Obama could have been referring to that kingdom’s complete absence of freedom of religion and the death sentence for apostasy. Atheism and agnosticism have never been issues in Hinduism, and Buddhism and Jainism are essentially non-theistic faiths. So where did he really criticise us for Modi-baiters to get ecstatic about it?

Or take his reference to diversity. Obama said “our diversity is our strength” and cautioned both India and the US to guard against sectarianism.

Note: the operative word is “our”. He did not say diversity is only America’s strength, but of both countries. It’s a compliment to us. He also expanded on this theme: “If America shows itself as an example of its diversity and the capacity to live and work together in common effort and common purpose, and if India, as massive as it is with so much diversity, so many differences, is able to continuously reaffirm its democracy so that is an example for every other country…That’s what makes us world leaders.” (Italics mine)


Here Obama is essentially applauding India’s diversity in the past and exhorting it to remain so in the future. Note the “if” in both sentences. He is essentially saying that both US and India are great countries only “if” they can retain their diversity and keep sectarian differences at bay.

We know that the US is hardly the exemplar in racial justice, as the recent riots and violence over the shooting of a Black youth by the Ferguson (Missouri) police prove. It is hardly likely that Obama had just Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti or Sakshi Maharaj or the RSS’s efforts to call India a Hindu nation in mind. US right-wingers call America a Christian nation – a nation where nearly half the population believes that Darwin was off his rocker by giving us his theory of evolution when, in fact, God created the world through “intelligent design.” Religion and the narrowness of religious beliefs is as much a problem in America as in India.

About India specifically, Obama said: “India is defined by diverse cultures, creed, languages. When we were born, people who looked like us couldn’t even vote in our country. There were times when I was treated differently because of the colour of my skin. My grandfather was a cook in the British army. Branches of Michelle’s family were slaves as well as slave-owners. A young boy delivering lunch on a bicycle, a young girl hauling a bucket of water. Even as we live in a world of inequality, a tea-seller can become Prime Minister. Everyone has a chance.”

Does this remotely sound like Obama was just giving us a lecture on how secular and just America is superior to communal India?

Then Obama talked about women’s empowerment, the girl child, and safety. We could take this as mild criticism of us, given our daily news fare of rape and sexual harassment. Or we could take it as a challenge we all need to meet. He said: “Every girl’s life matters. Every daughter deserves the same chance as our sons. Every woman should be able to go about her day…and be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity that she deserves.”

This is hardly something to take amiss, when our own Prime Minister talked about the same issues on I-Day and there is now a Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme on the anvil.

On climate change, he said what needed to be said: that we have to learn to grow with far less use of fossil fuels than before. Who can argue with that?

The moral of the story is simple: what we got was a heart-felt message from the US president, but we read it as a condemnation of Modi or the Sangh parivar. It goes to prove a basic human truth: there is a gap between what is said and what we choose to hear.


Obama’s Siri Fort speech: PM Modi baiters, bhakts have heard different versions