NEW DELHI: US President Barack Obama broke free of Indian government trappings to make a strong appeal for religious tolerance saying no where was this more necessary than in India. He linked development and growth with religious tolerance and secularism.

“ India will succeed (in realising its ambitions for development and growth) “so long as it is not splintered on lines of religious faith, and not splintered at all,” President Obama said on the last morning of his visit. And shortly after the Indian government (see picture) had published an advertisement with the Preamble of the Indian Constitution as the backdrop where the two words “secular” and “socialist” had been cut out.

President Obama said that it is religious tolerance and empathy that unites people, rather than the colour of their skin or the way they worship their gods. “Our diversity is our strength,” he emphasised. He said the strength of a nation came from its ability to continually affirm its diversity, and not “just our economics and the number of weapons we have but how much we respect each other.”

The US President said that his faith too had been questioned. And the world had seen violence and terror by those who were betraying their faith, not upholding it. Too often, he said, religion had been used to tap into the darker impulses instead of recognising that every individual has the right to practice their faith as they choose, or not practice at all, and to do so without fear of discrimination.

“Every person has the right to practice their religion and beliefs and not practice it if they choose so without any persecution. No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often, religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts," President Obama said

His remarks come at a time when right wing Hindutva groups have been terrorising the minorities ---both Muslims and Christians---violence under their campaigns of ‘love jihad’ and ‘ghar wapsi’.

President Obama began his address with the agreements reached between him and the Indian government, went on to spell out how these could be achieved. Here he spoke at length on the need to respect women and the girl child, to truly empower them and went into the diversity of India and the US that was the strength of both countries.

"Sometimes I have been discriminated against on the basis of the colour of my skin. When we were born people like us couldn't vote in some parts of the country,” he said.

He went on to quote from the Indian Constitution, "your Article 25 says that all people are 'equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” He said this was true in the US adding, “in both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it's also the responsibility of every person."

President Obama seemed to be responding to recommendations of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom that has in its 2014 report made scathing comments on communal violence in India. The recommendations directed the US government to integrate concern for religion freedom into bilateral contacts with India along with the agenda for security and energy and the rest of it.

The USCIRF recorded the violence in Muzaffarnagar before the Lok Sabha elections, “In late August 2013, communal violence erupted in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh (UP). While the federal and state governments deployed to the area army troops, provincial military personnel, and federal Rapid Action Force officers, between 40 and 60 people were killed; at least a dozen women and girls were raped, often by gangs; nearly 100 people were injured; and upwards of 50,000 were displaced to “relief camps.” As of early 2014, several thousand people, mostly Muslims, remained displaced in deplorable conditions out of fear of returning to their homes. Sixteen local governmental officials from several different political parties were arrested in September 2013 and charged with inciting the communal violence, as were several local parliamentarians and community leaders. Their cases remain pending. In addition 570 cases, implicating over 6,000 people (including local governmental leaders and police) have been filed.”

It also recorded the insecurity and concerns expressed by Christian groups that it interacted with in India about the anti-conversion laws and the threats to their safety and security. Interestingly the report released mid last year states, “The Indian courts are still adjudicating cases stemming from large-scale Hindu-Christian communal violence in Odisha in 2007-08 and large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. NGOs, religious leaders, and human rights activists allege religious bias and corruption in these investigations and adjudications. In October 2013, a lower court acquitted 54 individuals of crimes relating to the Odisha violence, including burning down a Baptist church and dozens of homes and businesses, due to lack of evidence and witnesses. Also in October, the same court convicted seven Christians for murdering Hindu leader Laxamananda Saraswati, whose death triggered the violence, despite the fact that Maoist rebels have twice claimed responsibility for the murder. In 2013, a lower court in Gujarat found longtime Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi – the current BJP candidate for Prime Minister – not responsible for the death of a prominent Muslim Congress Party leader who was burned alive in 2002. The case was brought by the leader’s widow, and she reportedly has appealed. Several other cases where Modi has been implicated for involvement or complicity in the 2002 violence continue.”