India risks "pulling apart" if Muslim minorities are not protected: Obama on Amanpour interview

Former US president Barack Obama spoke on present-day challenges to democracy, urging President Biden to raise the treatment of Indian Muslims with Prime Minister Modi on his US sojourn

Former US president Barack Obama in conversation with CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour in Athens, Greece, on Thursday, June 22. (photo courtesy: CNN)
Former US president Barack Obama in conversation with CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour in Athens, Greece, on Thursday, June 22. (photo courtesy: CNN)

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

In an hour-long interview with renowned journalist and CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour on Thursday, June 22, former United States president Barack Obama spoke about the current global challenges to democracy.

During the conversation, Obama made reference to India's treatment of ethnic minorities, highlighting that there is a "strong possibility" that the world's largest democracy will start "pulling apart" if the rights of Muslim minorities are not protected.

"If I had a conversation with Mr Modi, who I know well, part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts," said Obama, who was responding to Amanpour's question on what US President Joe Biden was doing to defend democracy across the world.

The interview comes against the backdrop of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's 'first official state visit' to the US, which is regarded as pivotal by both sides for strategic, technological and defence cooperation.

Joining a long list of lawmakers, politicians, Indian diaspora and civil society members in the US, Obama too urged Biden to raise concerns about the state of religious minorities', the press' and political freedoms in India.

"President Biden, whom you know extremely well, has made the defence of democracy the centrepiece of his administration. He has called the President of China a dictator and is sticking with it. He is also hosting as we speak the prime minister of India, Modi, who is considered to be autocratic or at least an illiberal democrat. How should a president engage with those kinds of leaders either in the naming of them or in dealing with them?" asked Amanpour.

"If the president meets with Prime Minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India, that’s something worth mentioning," Obama responded only an hour before Modi was to arrive at the White House to a ceremonious welcome.

"[India's poor treatment of ethnic minorities] would be contrary to the interests not just of Muslim India but also Hindu India. I think it’s important to be able to talk about these things honestly," Obama added.

Since arriving in New York on June 21, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader has held several high-level meeting with Biden and other top officials, put out a joint statement on strengthening bilateral cooperation through various means and ventures, led an International Yoga Day event at the United Nations Headquarters, taken part in a state dinner and engaged with top business leaders, key personalities and members of the Indian diaspora.

Modi also appeared for a joint press conference at the White House alongside Biden on Friday, June 23 — one of his only press conferences as he is known to dodge media interaction.

A Wall Street Journal journalist had asked Modi about the growing instances of hate crimes and religious intolerance against Muslims and other religious minorities. In response, he said, "Democracy is in our DNA, democracy is our spirit, democracy runs in our veins. We have always proved that democracy can deliver, and when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There is absolutely no space for discrimination."

It was at the birthplace of democracy in Athens, Greece, that Amanpour and Obama delved into the survival of democracy against a backdrop of global crises. India, the former president said, must look beyond differences of religion or tribe.

The former US president further said that meeting with dictators or other anti-democratic leaders is just one of the "complex facets of the American presidency".

"It’s complicated," Obama said. "The president of the United States has a lot of equities. And when I was president, I would deal with figures in some cases who were allies, who, you know, if you pressed me in private, do they run their governments and their political parties in ways that I would say are ideally democratic? I’d have to say no."

Reacting to Obama's comments, Congress MP Manish Tewari tweeted, "I would be surprised if former president Barack Obama‘s comments were just coincidental. Joe Biden was Barack Obama‘s vice-president for eight long years. Barack Obama continues to be his biggest supporter. It is Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Get someone equally influential to say it."

On the other hand, BJP vice president and spokesperson Baijayant Panda slammed Obama for his comments, calling it "preposterous" and "pandering to the anti-India crowd in the US".

Obama has hosted Modi once in September 2014 and twice in 2016, Meanwhile, Modi hosted him in Delhi in January 2015 as the 'chief guest' of the Republic Day celebrations. Manmohan Singh was the last Indian prime minister hosted by a US President as an official state guest, during Obama's tenure in 2009.

"India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith — so long as it’s not splintered along any lines — and is unified as one nation," Obama had said during his visit to India in 2015.

As Modi's state visit nears it conclusion on Friday, Biden is not known to have brought up said concerns with the prime minister — infact, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan had on June 21, told Al Jazeera, that Biden will not 'lecture' Modi on human rights during their interactions.

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