By Namrata Goswami
February 2, 2015
Barack Obama’s Siri Fort address celebrated Indian diversity, but with a caution that failure to strengthen it could result in insecurity and fear limiting its emancipating power
Luckily enough, I got invited at the very last minute to Barack Obama’s Siri Fort address on January 27. I have admired and been inspired by the life of Mr. Obama, especially his ability to rise above discrimination, the history of slavery, and lack of civil rights for African Americans when he was growing up. Who is not? But I must specify here that his life has special resonance, especially for people in India’s peripheral zones like Kashmir or the Northeast where a ‘perception’ of discrimination still persists. And in grand events like the Obama-Modi meet, where big ticket items like the civil nuclear deal, the strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific, business summits, the China factor, and grand receptions dominate the visual landscape, the idea of human dignity and individual freedom — something his life champions and aspires to — gets lost in the din of chest-thumping and business suits. As a strategic thinker and writer, I enjoyed and read through all those developments, making sense of the impact for future U.S.-India cooperation in nuclear and high technology, defence, in the South China Sea, and for economic prosperity. But what I longed for as a researcher working on causes and/or resolution of ethnic conflicts was to hear him talk of the human being; of individual empowerment and emancipation of women, youth; of hope, of change. He did not disappoint us. He spoke with grandeur about human aspirations and urged us to rise above the limits of our circumstances with inspired imagination by painting a canvas of diversity, religious freedom, women safety and of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to be judged by the content of one’s character and not by the colour of one’s skin, and finally about the empathy deficit.
Impact of Speech
Why is the Siri Fort address important for India and how does it reflect and celebrate India’s democratic ethos? As I sat in the audience watching Mr. Obama speak, I realised that he delivered this kind of a speech because he believed it is possible in India to realise the dream of diversity. Thereby, he quoted Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees religious freedom to all Indians, which is part and parcel of our fundamental rights and societal ethos. Some well-meaning but closed minded elites have misunderstood this as preachy or patronising — this is far from the truth. As someone coming from Northeast India, I can visualise the impact of this speech on ethnic communities in Nagaland or Manipur or Mizoram, and the realisation there that Mr. Obama is quoting from their own Constitution about a fundamental human right that it guarantees.
“The fear of loss of identity, culture and land has created the reasons for recurring conflicts in some of India’s peripheral zones”
What would however strike the biggest chord amongst Indians from all walks of life is his championing of empathy and equality. How the dreams of Vishal, the son of a construction worker, is as important as the dreams of his daughters, Malia and Sasha. In my visits to some of the most underdeveloped and desolate areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, the stark reality that confronted me were villages where basic health, electricity, schools and roads were non-existent. I felt a sense of anguish when village children would gather around me with sparks in their eyes listening to me about how their future can be bright if they educated themselves. I did feel helpless as I wondered where they would study and what kind of education they would get. The only means of education in these remote villages were state-run schools which were so broken that when the rains came — and they came often — they could not function as the roofs were full of holes. Mr. Obama’s emphasis on equality and empathy was therefore an important reminder to the students sitting in the audience that day that they have a mission to ensure that they not only shape the world but also shape an India that offers equal opportunity and a level playing field for all, no matter the background.
The fear of loss of identity, culture and land has created the reasons for recurring conflicts in some of India’s peripheral zones. People grow up with little hope of enjoying a level playing field, where equal opportunity is available to, say, a child growing up in Lodi village of Dima Hasao district, Assam, as it is to a child growing up in Guwahati, the capital city. You see, Mahatma Gandhi, who has deeply inspired Mr. Obama, placed people at the centre of politics. For him, words like nationalism and patriotism sounded hollow if the territory one was nationalistic or patriotic about tolerated poverty, hunger and disease. For Gandhi, the individual mattered the most. Patriotism for him was about wiping the tears from every eye, about providing individuals a level playing field, where he or she can excel to the best of his or her capabilities and develop critical faculty. Gandhi categorically stated that institutions of the state, therefore, must never lose sight of the fact that they exist to serve the people, and not some abstract idea of India which tolerates inequalities and human injustices.
A Better India
It is for these reasons that Mr. Obama’s final speech will be remembered — for the lives it touched and for the sense of mission that it invoked in us to create a better India. His emphasis on diversity is not new. In his January 20 “State of the Union” address to the American people, he called upon them to celebrate diversity, citing it as their greatest strength. He did not shy away in the Siri Fort address to list some of the gravest challenges that the U.S. had faced; slavery, discrimination, racism, voting rights for all. I believe it is in the spirit of democracy, mutual respect and our sense of diversity that we need to view President Obama’s Siri Fort address as a celebration of Indian diversity with a caution that if we fail to strengthen it, insecurity and fear may limit its emancipating power.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi