(This column was published in DNA edition dated November 6, 2010, the day US President Barack Obama arrived in Mumbai at the start of a three-day official tour of India.)
Dear President Obama
By now, you would have gotten an up-close experience of how noisily we Indians celebrate our Diwali. The festival was traditionally celebrated, with fireworks and diya lamps, to mark the return to Ayodhya of Lord Ram. In more recent times, however, Diwali has become more of a joyous multicultural observance, in which people of other religious faiths too join in.
In that spirit, we invite you to light a diya for this Diwali: that flickering flame will tell you more about India than any number of ‘country briefing’ papers that your staff would have prepared for you ahead of this trip.
It will tell you, first, that India is a timeless civilization with an eternal quest for the Light of Knowledge, which is embodied in a line from a Vedic prayer: tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (From Darkness, lead us unto Light). That quest, however, remains unfulfilled in modern India: by 2020, India will likely account for a majority of the world’s illiterate population. Remember that the next time you hype up Indian education to rouse Americans: some of us Indians are beginning to believe your rhetoric, and it’s puffing us up with a false sense of pride when we have much unfinished business at hand.
The oil lamp, which still serves as the primary source of illumination in many parts of India, will also tell you something about India’s huge and growing power deficit. Power cuts are routine even in our big cities, and 50% of our rural population has no access to electricity. It is in this context that we value the civilian nuclear agreement with the US, rather than as a symbol of an emerging strategic relationship. It opens the door to commerce in nuclear energy, which we desperately need to address our ‘power poverty’; don’t let US energy conglomerates hold that hostage because they don’t want to abide by our well-intentioned nuclear liability bill.
The flickering flame should also remind you of a chilling moment in India’s recent history when Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked and set fire to the magnificent hotel you’re staying in, along with other targets in Mumbai two years ago. That attack is symptomatic of the terrorist threats that India and other countries around the world, including the US, face from Pakistani state-sponsored jihadis. Never yield to the pressure therefore, while cajoling the Pakistan government to cooperate with you, to sell India short in any way.
With all its imperfections, India is a shining beacon of democracy in a troubled neighbourhood and a force for good in an unstable world. Over centuries, it’s been – as much as America – a crucible for the agglomeration of cultures. Shield this lamp from the ill winds that blow, and the world will be a better place.
Happy Diwali wishes
From a billion-plus Indians.
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More on Obama’s visit here, here and here.