NEW DELHI – President Barack Obama gently nudged India Tuesday to fulfill its constitution's pledge to uphold the "dignity of the individual," drawing on his own experience as a minority in the United States as he closed out a three-day visit to New Delhi.
Obama said that while he has had extraordinary opportunities, "there were moments in my life where I've been treated differently because of the color of my skin." As he touted the importance of religious tolerance, he noted the persistent false rumors that he is a Muslim, not a Christian.
"There have been times where my faith has at times been questioned by people who don't know me, or they've said that I adhere to a different religion, as if that were somehow a bad thing," Obama said.
Equality is enshrined in India's constitution, but religious minorities and women have experienced harassment and violence. A horrific gang rape on a moving bus in the heart of New Delhi in 2012 sparked public protests, which prompted more stringent laws. But critics say more progress is needed and Obama gave voice to their cause.
"Every woman should be able to go about her day -- to walk the street or ride the bus -- and be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity that she deserves," Obama said to applause from the audience of 1,500 at the Siri Fort Auditorium, a government-run event center.
Since taking office in May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often talked about women's rights, urging Indians to treat sons and daughters equally. He recently launched an "educate the daughter, save the daughter," program to stem sex selective abortions that skews the gender ratio toward boys and to encourage parents to educate girls, who are often considered a burden.
Obama nodded to his wife as he noted that he's married to a strong woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. "Our nations are strongest when we uphold the equality of all our people and that includes our women," he said.
India is largely Hindu, with almost 80 percent following the faith. At over 12 percent Muslims are India's largest minority, with Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists making up the rest. While religious groups largely coexist peacefully, the country has seen several flare ups of violence, primarily between Hindus and Muslims.
Obama said no society is immune from man's darkest impulses, as he raised the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that killed six people. "In that moment of shared grief, our two countries reaffirmed a basic truth, as we must again today, that every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination," Obama said.
Modi was denied was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official. He has denied any wrongdoing and India's top court says it found no evidence of Modi's involvement in the riots, but India's Muslims and Christians are wary of Modi's right wing Bharatiya Janata Party.
Obama's speech was the closing to a three-day visit to celebrate India's Republic Day, the anniversary of India's democratic constitution taking force in 1950. He cut out Tuesday's plans for a visit to the Taj Mahal, India's famed white marble monument of love, to add a stop in Saudi Arabia on the way home to pay respects to the royal family following King Abdullah's death.
Earlier, the Obamas met with Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-child labor activist Kailash Satyarthi and his wife. They were accompanied by three children -- a 12-year-old rescued from a button factory, an 8-year-old who lost a finger as a farm worker and a 12-year-old girl who has advocated for clean drinking water in school and against child marriages. Satyarthi said there are still more than 5 million child slaves worldwide and thanked Obama for helping fight the scourge.
In his speech, Obama also raised his pursuit of an agreement with India to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "I know the argument made by some -- that it's unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century," Obama said. "But here's the truth -- even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly like India with soaring energy needs don't also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don't stand a chance against climate change."
Obama's remarks were well-received despite his criticisms of his host country. He drew laughter and applause when he referenced the hugely popular Bollywood movie Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, or "the brave heart will win the bride." Obama quoted a line in Hindi from the movie as he joked that he wasn't able to dance during this visit as in his last.
The sentence translates to, "Senorita, these things happen sometimes in big countries."