India needs to “cherish and nurture” its Muslim population, which is integrated and considers itself Indian, former US president Barack Obama said on Friday.
It is an idea that needs to be reinforced, he emphasised at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit here.
Obama touched on a host of topics, including his relationship with Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh, terrorism, Pakistan, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his love for Indian dal and keema, during his address and the question-answer session that followed.
Obama, the first African American president of the US, said he had emphasised the need for religious tolerance and the right to practice one’s own faith during closed door talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his last trip to India in 2015.
The 44th US president, who held office between 2009 and 2017, had made similar comments during a public interaction on the last day of his 2015 visit, which had come against the backdrop of controversy over religious conversions.
Responding to questions during the interactive session, Obama said his comments then were general in nature and he had repeated it in the US as well as in Europe.
“There’s a counter narrative taking place, at all times, but it’s particularly pronounced now... You are seeing it in Europe, you are seeing it in the United States and sometimes you see it in India where those old tribal impulses reassert themselves under leaders who try to push back those impulses and under leaders who try to exploit them,” Obama said.
The former US president said it is necessary to make sure that voices which talk about working together are encouraged.
Replying to an India-specific question, Obama spoke of India’s “enormous Muslim population”, which is successful, integrated and thinks of itself as Indian.
That is unfortunately not always the case in some other countries, Obama added.
Referring to India, he said, “And that is something that needs to be cherished and nurtured, cultivated. It’s important to continue reinforcing it.”
Asked about Modi’s response when he emphasised the need for religious tolerance and the right to practice one’s own faith, Obama said he would not like to share the details.
To a separate question, he said Modi’s “impluse” was to recognise the importance of Indian unity.
“I think he firmly believes the need for that in order to advance to the great nation status,” Obama said.
When terror struck Mumbai in November 2008, he said, “the US was as obsessed as India” to dismantle the terror network. US intelligence personnel, he added, were deployed to help the Indian government.
Referring to Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, he said the US had no evidence that Islamabad was aware of the presence of the 9/11 attack mastermind in its territory.
Asked about terror emanating from Pakistan, Obama said, “What is true, and an understandable source of frustration, is the view that sometimes there are connections between explicit terrorist organisations based in Pakistan and elements that are connected to various more official entities inside Pakistan.”
Questioned on his equation with Modi, who often referred to him as “my friend Obama”, the former US president noted that he also shared great rapport with Manmohan Singh.
“I like him (Modi) and I think he has the vision for the country. But I was also great friends with Dr (Manmohan) Singh.”
He lauded the steps taken by Singh to modernise the economy that launched the “foundation of modern Indian economy”.
“The unifying thing (between Modi and Singh) was that (they advocated) strong US-India relations were important,” Obama said, adding that both had the same mission to take India towards a more modern economy.
“I found both of them to be engaged, honest, direct with me and both of them took tough decisions,” he said.
Obama highlighted Singh’s work during the global financial meltdown in 2008, and said Modi was the “primary partner” in unlocking the Paris accord.
“Both (steps taken by Modi and Singh) required some political courage back in India,” he said.
On a lighter note, he spoke of his love for Indian food and cooking.
“I am the only US president to have a dal recipe. I also prepare excellent keema.”