PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images(NEW DELHI) — On his final day in India, President Obama declared U.S. relations with the world’s largest democracy “one of the defining partnerships of this century,” while nudging his Indian counterpart, Narenda Modi, to pursue greater economic equality, women’s rights and religious tolerance.
In a speech to New Delhi youth, Obama sought to leverage three days of back-slapping and bonhomie into a subtle challenge to the right-wing, Hindu nationalist government of his host. One Indian media outlet went so far as to describe Obama’s words as a “snub.”
“India will succeed as long as it’s not splintered along religious lines,” Obama declared, a message some viewed as a direct reference to the anti-Muslim policies of Modi’s ruling party and their efforts to constrain Muslim and Christian groups that do evangelization and religious conversion.
“In our lives, Michelle and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith. Still, as you may know, 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,” he said. “Every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”
Obama called for celebration of racial diversity, invoking Michelle Obama’s ancestral ties to “slaves and slave owners” and occasions when he was “treated differently because the color of my skin.”
He also upheld Mrs. Obama as a model of women’s rights, calling her a “very strong and talented” wife who “frequently” tells him he’s wrong.
“I’m surrounded by smart women,” the president said. “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.”
The president, who was greeted by the crowd of 1,500 at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium with chants of “Obama! Obama!,” leaves India after three days on an upbeat note. He was the first American president to visit twice and the first to be honored as chief guest on Republic Day.
“I am the first American president to come to your country twice. But I predict I will not be the last. Because, as Americans, we believe in the promise of India,” he said.
Ahead of the speech, the Obamas met with three Indian youth who were rescued from child slavery and Kailash Satyarthi, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner who shared the award with Malala Yousafzai.
Satyarthi is a leading anti-child slavery advocate. He was overheard telling President Obama that there are still five million child slaves around the world.
“Thanks to your administration in America the number of child slaves has gone down,” he said.
Mrs. Obama kept her arms around 12-year-old Payal Jangid the entire time.
President Obama now turns to a much different alliance, making a rare and impromptu visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on his way home.
The president will pay his respects to the Saudi royal family after Friday’s death of Kind Abdullah, mark the transition to King Salman, and discuss the fight against ISIS and the situation in Yemen, White House officials said.
Obama brings with him more than two dozen top dignitaries, including Republican Sen. John McCain, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former George W. Bush Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Obama is due back on U.S. soil on Wednesday.
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