January 28, 2015 | By Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI)
New Delhi: In his final hours in India, U.S. President Barack Obama called the country a “partner,” saying India should not be “splintered along the lines of religious faith.”
“Our freedom of religion is written into our founding documents,” said Obama during his half-hour speech at New Delhi’s Fort Siri. “It’s part of America’s very first amendment. Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.”
His remarks concluded an unprecedented second state visit by a sitting U.S. president to India. Obama’s administration has overseen an expanding alliance with South Asia’s dominant nation as the United States has softened its stance towards controversial Indian politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2005, Modi was banned by the U.S. State Department from entering the country due to “egregious religious freedom violations,” but the policy was swiftly reversed after his election as India’s chief executive.
Although the 25th article of India’s Constitution is frequently credited as enshrining a right to religious freedom, many minorities of Indian origin believe it does exactly the opposite. “The foundational threat to religious liberty in independent India is Article 25,” said Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of US-based Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI).
“Article 25 does two things,” said Singh. “First, it permits the state to regulate religion and religious institutions for ‘public order’ and, second, it forces followers of the Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist religions to identify as Hindus even though these three separate faiths are totally distinct. South Asian minorities have very publicly petitioned President Obama to address questionable provisions in the article, but he has failed them by instead affirming it in total.”
The article, entitled “Right to Freedom of Religion,” states that Indians may profess, practice, and propagate their religion, but conditions that right by saying it is “subject to public order, morality and health.” Furthermore, the article says the State is not prevented from making any law “regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” Its most disputed clause states that “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion.”
In anticipation of Obama’s visit to India, the group Sikhs for Justice launched a whitehouse.gov petition to the president asking him to raise the issue of Article 25 with Modi. The petition system, designed to allow Americans to bring concerns to the president’s attention, requires collection of 100,000 signatures in 30 days to prompt a response. Over the month of December 2014, 125,022 people in the U.S. joined their names to the petition asking Obama, while in India, to question Modi about why India’s Constitution labels Sikhs as “Hindus.” Obama’s office has yet to issue any response, but his affirmation of the article seems likely to unsettle petitioners.
“While India’s ruling party demands national criminalization of religious conversion without state permission, and leaders of both major political parties have only advanced in power after instigating pogroms against religious minorities, Obama’s lip service to Article 25 constitutes a dual betrayal of the American and Indian peoples,” remarked South Asia analyst Pieter Friedrich. “Even after over a hundred thousand Americans warned their president that Article 25 destroys religious liberty in India, he responded by publicly embracing the Orwellian article. Obama has accomplished nothing more in India than the perpetuation of newspeak, the political language that calls black as white, tyranny as freedom, and good as evil.”
President Obama was joined on his trip to India by four legislators from his Democrat Party — House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi, New York Congressman Joe Crowley, California Congressman Ami Bera, and Virginia Senator Mark Warner. Bera and Pelosi are both members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. On January 26, Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) protested Obama’s choice of “a partisan congressional delegation,” noting that no Republican members of Congress were invited to join the trip. Bera’s 2014 reelection campaign faced protests by his South Asian American constituents based on his refusal to address their concerns about religious freedom violations by the Indian State.