The President-Elect and India

Martha Nussbaum

President-elect Barack Obama will face many challenges in foreign policy, but forging a productive relationship with India will be high on that list. President Clinton took a keen interest in India, and, especially, in issues of rural development. He visited rural development projects with his usual zest and curiosity, taking a particularly keen interest in the situation of women. After his Presidency, Clinton has continued his work on issues of poverty and development. He was also virtually the only major international leader to stand up right after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and publicly condemn the perpetrators.

President Bush, by contrast, focused his efforts on the nuclear deal, more or less neglecting issues of poverty and development. One bright spot in the generally dismal record of his dealings with India, however, was the decision to deny a visa to Narendra Modi, who had been invited to lecture here by a group of Non-Resident Indians (NRI’s). The State Department cited his role in the Gujarat pogrom as its reason for denying him a diplomatic visa and revoking his tourist visa. This courageous stance in favor of human rights and against the perpetrators of a genocide was surprising but highly welome to the large number of U. S.-based scholars of India who had petitioned the State Department in this matter.

What course will President Obama choose? Will he, like Clinton, focus on poverty, quality of life, gender equality, and an end to the politics of hate? Or will he follow the lead of the NRI community, focusing on entrepreneurship and nuclear partnership? Much discussion, this week, has focused on Obama’s appointment of Sonal Shah to his transition team. I shall not add to the growing volume of commentary on Shah’s links to the VHP-A, since she has already issued one statement condeming the politics of hate, and will soon be invited to clarify her position further. Shah personally is involved with only the VHP-A’s relief efforts. There is room for concern, however, that someone with such close ties to an organization that has been complicit in terrorist activities against Muslims and Christians should hold such a prominent place. The whole issue deserves the further clarification that it will receive.

Instead of pursuing that question further, however, I should like to focus on a letter written by then-candidate Obama to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, dated September 23, 2008, and published in India Abroad, the October 10 issue. I address these remarks to my former University of Chicago Law School colleague in the spirit of the type of respectful yet searching criticism that I know he will recognize as a hallmark of our faculty workshops and discussions.

The Obama letter has three slightly disturbing characteristics.

First, the letter gives lengthy praise to the nuclear deal, without acknowledging the widespread debate about the wisdom of that deal in both nations. Perhaps, however, this silence simply reflects politeness: Obama is surely aware that Singh has been an enthusiastic backer of the deal, risking much political capital in the process.

Second, the letter speaks of future cooperation that will “tap the creativity and dynamism of our entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists,” particularly in the area of alternative energy sources, but never mentions a future partnership in the effort to eradicate poverty and illiteracy. This silence, unlike the first, cannot be explained by politeness, since Singh has devoted a great deal of attention to issues of rural poverty, and it is plausible to think that he could have gotten a lot further had he had more help from abroad.

Third, and most disturbing, the letter commiserates with Singh for the Delhi bomb blasts, but makes no mention of Gujarat or Orissa. Obama offers Singh:

“my condolences on the painful losses your citizens have suffered in the recent string of terrorist assaults. As I have said publicly, I deplore and condemn the vicious attacks perpetrated in New Delhi earlier this month, and on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7. The death and destruction is reprehensible, and you and your nation have my deepest sympathy. These cowardly acts of mass murder are a stark reminder that India suffers from the scourge of terrorism on a scale few other nations can imagine.”

Obama’s use of the word “terrorism” to describe acts thought to be perpetrated by Muslims, while not using that same word for acts perpetrated by Hindus, is ominous. Muslims suffer greatly in India, as elsewhere, from the stereotype of the violent Muslim, and both justice and truth demand that we all do what we can to undermine these stereotypes, bringing the guilty of all religions to justice, and protecting the innocent. (The recent refusals of local bar associations in India to defend Muslims accused of complicity in terrorism, under threat of violence, shows that the rule of law itself hangs in the balance.) Particularly odd is Obama’s omission of events in Orissa, which were and are ongoing. His phrase “the scourge of terrorism” is virtually Bushian in its suggestion that terrorism is a single thing (presumably Muslim) and that many nations suffer from that single thing. (Note that it is not even true that most world terrorism is caused by Muslims. Our University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape’s careful quantitative study of terrorism worldwide concludes that the Tamil Tigers, a secular political organization, are the bloodiest in the world. Moreover, Pape argues convincingly that even when religion is used as a screen for terror, the real motives are most often political, having to do with local conflicts.)

Obama’s letter was written during a campaign. Perhaps it reflects awareness of the priorities of NRI’s who were working hard in that campaign. At this point, however, he can start with a clean slate and decide how to order his priorities regarding India. Let us hope that, like Bill Clinton, he will give the center of his attention to issues of human development (poverty, gender equality, education, health), and that, when discussing the issue of religious violence, he will study carefully the violence in Gujarat and Orissa, learn all he can about the organizations of the Sangh Parivar, and adopt a policy that denounces religious violence in all its forms. To mention one immediate issue, it would be a disaster for global justice if Obama, as President, were to heed the demands of the diaspora community to grant Narendra Modi a visa — especially since the Tehelka expose has made so clear the cooperation of the government of the state of Gujarat in those horrendous acts of violence.

President Obama has repeatedly shown a deeply felt commitment to the eradication of a politics based upon hate. Can we have confidence that he will carry that commitment into his relationship with India, even when the demands of powerful leaders of the NRI community make that difficult? I certainly hope so.

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, and the author of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future.