Before boarding Air Force One to return to the United States after his short visit to India in January, President Barack Obama made a statement that lingered. The message it contained was loud and clear: India must stick to its core democratic and secular values and take care of its minorities. Only then could it become a great power.
Several Indians, including many people in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were outraged at how a foreign guest could make such a statement after being offered such great hospitality and honour. Their central argument: Indians are truly secular and don't need lessons from the United States. Some of Obama's critics pointed out that the US itself treats its black people badly. The essential sentiment was this: "We are a great country, and we can take care of our minorities, OK?"
But other Indians saw some merit in the American President's statement. They pointed to recent attacks on various minorities that have raised doubts about our secular character.
India's Constitution is regarded as one of the sturdiest and most comprehensive in the world, and we are hailed as a truly secular democracy. But a few critical questions need to be posed: Are Indians obsessed with religion? Are politics and religion connected?
In many countries, they probably are. A few centuries ago the Church was supreme, and even monarchs had to obey their edicts. The monarch of England is the Defender of the Faith and the Head of the Church of England. However, the United Kingdom remains a great liberal democracy. The same is true of several European, and some countries in West Asia.
Some of us attended good schools run by Christian missionaries. And while many of us never discerned any motive other than imparting a good education, some schools were probably started by missionaries to advance the ideals of Christianity and perhaps convert people too.
I used to work for a large corporate group until recently. This company had only a handful of Muslim executives, one of them being a brilliant engineer whom I'll call Abdul. He was so talented that even the director would frequently walk to the table of this young engineer and ask: "Abdul, how do we solve this problem? Please do this for me in the next two hours!" And Abdul would work it out in less than an hour.
"Prime Minister Modi is a sensible and intelligent man and hopefully will keep such incidents to a minimum by prevailing against the hot-heads in his party and its affiliates."
None of us gave a second thought to the fact that Abdul was a Muslim. Many of his seniors were proud of his achievements. Only when he took a holiday on Bakr-Id would we realise that he was a practising Muslim. The fact that he was a Muslim was incidental, and irrelevant. In the workplace, performance is far more appreciated, and religion or the caste of a person gets less consideration. Sadly, this doesn't extend to politicians and several sections of the Indian society, where communalism seems to be on the rise. President Obama was not entirely incorrect.
While several religious shrines have been targeted sporadically over the years, the recent spate of attacks on churches came after the present government took over. Even though the government is headed by some extremely decent, educated and possibly secular people, the fringe forces which claim to represent the majority have become emboldened, and the government is either unwilling or unable to stop them.
What can one say when a senior minister in the Union government says that the Bhagavad Gita should be declared as the "national book"? Why not other great religious texts? The Gita is definitely a sacred and great book, but as a secular country no single religious book can be declared as the official national book.
I wonder if many people in the present government have even read the Gita, much less followed its teachings. The great scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the atomic bomb program at Los Alamos, New Mexico, followed the Gita in his life and work.
This German Jew was so fascinated by the text that when he was young he learnt Sanskrit to read the original work. He kept several copies of theGita and distributed them to his friends. He knew what he was doing in Los Alamos as the director of the atomic project was going to result in carnage, but he rationalised that it would end the war quickly and result in fewer people being killed.
He used the Gita to justify to himself that he was just doing his "duty" as ordered by the government even though the results would be abhorrent. He followed this sacred book in every deed and action of his life even though he never claimed to be a Hindu.
In a recent article, the highly respected former super-cop, Julio Ribeiro, spoke of how he felt unsafe and threatened in India due to the attacks on churches and by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's criticism of Mother Teresa.
This is a person who bravely assumed charge of Punjab as the director-general of police (DGP) when it was threatened by separatist militants; he managed to bring the situation under control. It is ironic that an officer who played a part in preserving the unity of the nation, and was subsequently decorated by a grateful nation, should feel threatened by the recent incidents.
Prime Minister Modi is a sensible and intelligent man and hopefully will keep such incidents to a minimum by prevailing against the hot-heads in his party and its affiliates. The progress and the unity of India, with its young population, are extremely important and the Prime Minister surely realises that.
His foreign policy has also been quite novel in many ways, especially with regard to India's neighbours.
For example, to counter Chinese political influence in Sri Lanka he has employed "soft-power," and organised an unusual dialogue between the Nalanda school of Buddhism -- which is prevalent in the Himalayan region -- and the Theravada one which has followers in Sri Lanka. The intention may not have been to re-claim India as the leader of the Buddhist world, but that's the benign effect of Mr Modi's initiative.
Leader of the Buddhist world or not, the nagging question remains: How do we protect secularism from the insane acts of extremists whose idea of a united India doesn't mirror that of the overwhelming - and sensible - majority? Big question indeed, and no easy answer.