Making a strong pitch for religious tolerance, United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday said every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution and that India will succeed so long it is not "splintered" on religious lines.
Addressing a Town hall event at the Siri Fort auditorium on the third and final day of his visit to India, Obama also said that America can be India's "best partner".
"Every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination. India will succeed so long it is not splintered on religious lines," Obama told the audience comprising mainly young people.
The president's comments came against the backdrop of the controversy over religious conversions and 'Ghar Wapsi’ programmes by right wing Hindu outfits in India.
Obama also cited Article 25 of the Indian Constitution dealing with Freedom of religion. "Your (Constitution) Article 25 says all people are equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and have right to freely profess and practise and propagate religion. In both our countries, in all countries upholding with freedom of religion is the utmost responsibility of the government but also the responsibility of every person," he said.
Obama also said that around the world we have seen intolerance, violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing for upholding their fait "We have to guard against any efforts to divide us on sectarian lines or any other thing," he said.
Obama further said that no society is immune by the darkest impulses of man and that more often religion has been used to tap into it.
He recounted an incident that occurred three years ago in Wisconsin where a man went into a Sikh gurdwara and "in a terrible act of violence" killed six innocent people which included both American and Indians.
"In that moment of shared grief, the two countries reaffirmed the basic truth that we must again today. Every person has a right to practice the faith that they choose and to practice no faith at all and to do so free of persecution, fear or discrimination," he said.
In his speech, attended by young students, scholars and others, Obama said such a proposition holds much importance in India. "And nowhere it is more important than in India. Nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld," he said.
Underlining the factors that unify both the countries, Obama said, "Our diversity is our strength" and cautioned that both India and the US have to be on guard against divisive efforts along sectarian lines or any other lines.
"...If we do that well and if America shows itself as example of its diversity and the capacity to live and work together in common effort and common purpose and if India as massive as it is with so much diversity, so many differences, is able to continuously reaffirm its democracy so that is an example for every other country.”
“That's what makes us world leaders. Not just the size of our economies or the number of weapons we have but our ability to show the way and how we work together," he said.
The US president picked Indian heroes like actor Shah Rukh Khan and sports icons like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to make a point that courage and humanitarian values unify both the nations.
"By what Dr King (Martin Luther King Jr) called content of our character rather than the colour of our skin or the manner in which we worship our god. In both our countries, in India and America, our diversity is our strength," he said.
Recalling his own experience as a minority in the US, Obama said that while he has had extraordinary opportunities, "there were moments in my life where I've been treated differently because of the colour of my skin." He also referred to the persistent false rumours 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. "The peace we seek in world begins in human heart," he added.
On Indo-US relations, Obama said, "India and the United States are not just natural partners -- I believe that America can be India's best partner."
"Of course, only Indians can decide India's role in the world," he said, adding, "But I'm here because I am absolutely convinced that both our peoples will have more jobs and opportunity, our nations will be more secure, and the world will be a safer and more just place when our two democracies stand together."
Obama also said the US supported India's inclusion as a permanent member in the UN Security Council. Against the backdrop of China exerting its influence in South China Sea, Obama said freedom of navigation must be upheld in the Asia Pacific and welcomed a greater role for India.
"The United States welcomes a greater role for India in the Asia Pacific, where the freedom of navigation must be upheld and disputes must be resolved peacefully," he said.