A week after former US president Barack Obama made highly controversial comments on India during PM Modi’s US visit, the White House has distanced itself from the comments. In a press briefing and a media interview, the White House officials refused to comment on Obama’s comments, terming them the opinions of the private citizen.
During a State Department press briefing on 26 June, a journalist had asked that while the president (Obama) had remarked about Muslims and other minorities India, the joint statement issued after the meeting between PM Modi and President Biden didn’t mention it. To it, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller replied that they regularly raise concerns about human rights in our conversations with Indian officials. He pointed out that Biden had spoken himself in the joint press conference that he held with Prime Minister Modi.
The spokesperson seemed to be confused about the question as the journalist mentioned only the ‘president’, and he assumed it was about Biden. Therefore, another journalist clarified that the question was former President Obama, adding that there has been quite a bit of response in India to that. The journalist then added Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma’s reaction to Obama’s comments, saying, “there was a social media post by the chief minister of the state of Assam, who is an ally of Prime Minister Modi, using quite insulting language about former-President Obama. Is that something that the United States wants to comment on.”
However, the State Department spokesperson refused to comment on it, replying with, “No, no, I don’t think so.”
In an interview with CNN, Obama had said that President Biden should mention the “protection of Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India” in his meeting with PM Modi. He had added that had he met PM Modi, he would have told him, “if you do not protect the rights of minorities, then there is a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart…That would be contrary to the interests of India.”
Obama’s comments were met with strong objections in India, with several top BJP leaders responding to it, and even reminding how large number of Muslim countries were attacked and bombed by US during Obama’s regime.
However, opposition and left-liberals were having a field day, celebrating comments of Obama against India. When The Wire journalist tried to taunt the Assam govt over the issue by suggesting that Assam police should go to DC to arrest Barrack, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma commented there are many enemies in India who will be dealt with first before going to foreign countries. He said, “There are many Hussain Obama in India itself. We should prioritize taking care of them before considering going to Washington. The Assam police will act according to our own priorities.”
Expectedly, these comments of the senior BJP leader and CM were widely criticised by the left-liberal ecosystem, including many foreign journalists. However, from the comments of the state department spokesperson, it is clear that they do not find it necessary to react to the comments of the Assam CM.
After that, Hindustan Times talked to a senior administrative official of the White House on the issue, who completely distanced the administration from Obama’s comments. The official said that Obama made the comments on his own as a private citizen, and there was coordination with the White House. When asked if the speculation of US playing “good cop-bad cop” with the opposite stands taken by the current and former presidents, the official said that they have enormous regard for Obama, “But he is a private citizen, and there was no coordination on what he said.”
The official added that every relevant issue was raised during Modi-Biden meeting, saying that Biden’s style is to do it with great dignity, to treat partners with respect and to engage in the spirit of a close partnership. He said that just like Biden had issues to raise, Modi also had few issues that he wanted to raise.
“I can tell you that the depth of their relationship allowed them to talk about issues respectfully and in a way that I’m confident that the other heard it and heard it in a spirit of respect,” the official said.
The official however reiterated its support for WSJ reporter Sabrina Siddiqui who asked a controversial question to PM Modi in Washington DC. “We have made very clear that we believe free and open press is important. We frankly do not support any kind of online harassment. And indeed it concerns us greatly,” he said.
It is notable that White House has come out strongly in support of Sabrina Siddiqui after she was criticised for her propaganda-laden question to Modi.
Sabrina had asked what steps PM Modi and his government are willing to take to protect the rights of Muslims and other minorities and to uphold free speech. In response, PM Modi had given a befitting reply by saying that India is a democracy, and both India and America have democracy in their DNA. “Democracy is our spirit, democracy flows in our veins. We live in a democracy and our ancestors have put that into words in the shape of the Constitution and our government runs on the basis of the Constitution which is based on the basic democratic values,” he had said, making it clear that every citizen is treated equally in India, regardless of religion.
After that, the reporter was criticised in India as it was evident that it was not a question, but an attempt to spread the propaganda that Muslims are under attack in India. But the White House has come in her support, asserting that the administration supports freedom of the press. On 26 June, NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the “harassment” of Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui.
On the other hand, critics of PM Narendra Modi are using her comments to further target the union government, as it bolsters their propaganda that Muslims are under attack in India and the govt needs to do more for Muslims. However, it is clear that the White House has no comments to make on that claim. Their support is only for the freedom of speech and freedom of the press to ask questions, and they opposed the alleged social media trolling targeting her. Their defence of Sabrina is a standard defence of press freedom, a standard objection to alleged online harassment, and was not linked to what she tried to imply with her question. They made no reference to the subject matter of the question.
Similarly, the US administration has distanced itself from the comments of ex-president Obama, which are backed by the same propaganda, that Muslims are being targeted in India under the Narendra Modi government. While the state department refused to comment on his remarks, the top official said that those were his personal remarks and White House has nothing to do with them.
This makes it clear that the White House does not do or say anything that can hamper diplomatic relations with India.