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India surprise: After visit, will religious freedom be Obama's legacy? (+video)

At a time when members of the current Hindu nationalist government are talking about 'converting' religious minorities to Hindu beliefs, Obama's words on free exercise and equality left a ringing sound.

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Indian Muslim women walk on the street leading to the 17th Century Jama Masjid, the principal mosque in the city, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. US President Barack Obama gently nudged India Tuesday to fulfill its constitution's pledge to uphold the 'dignity of the individual,' drawing on his own experience as a minority in the United States as he closed out a three-day visit to New Delhi. Equality is enshrined in India's constitution, but religious minorities and women have experienced harassment and violence.

Tsering Topgyal/AP

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After days of bonhomie between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a nuclear deal, strategic talks on China, a colorful parade, big hugs – a short series of comments on religious freedom by the US president proved to be the only point at which his friendly demeanor gave way to sternness.

Yet in a nation grappling with religious identity and strife, it was seized on as a significant part of the memory of Mr. Obama's visit. 

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Delivered at a town hall-style forum mainly intended for young people, Obama started off winningly, saying the US and India could be “best partners.”

But then, speaking to a nation that last spring elected Mr. Modi, an ardent Hindu nationalist, to high office, Obama said: 

"India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation."

Since Obama and first lady Michelle Obama yesterday left for Saudi Arabia, the comments have gone viral and been hotly debated in the media. And they've been appreciated among religious minorities, Christian and Muslim alike.

“There was a need for President Obama to mention religious toleration,” says Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, a prominent Indian-Muslim leader and Chief Imam of the All India Organization of Imams. “ If someone cares about a house, they must do what is right to protect it. This is the nation of Mahatma Gandhi, all religions are meant to be free here, but Modi has failed to address the fears of minorities.”

The president added another dose of the US Constitution’s First Amendment values – and an implicit warning about extremism – in saying that individuals must be free to "profess, practice, and propagate" their faith “without fear or discrimination.”

Obama’s words of caution come at a time when the debates here over religious intolerance have become more toxic.  Modi himself had been denied a visa to the US for years prior to being elected, largely on suspicions that as the chief governor of the state of Gujarat, had a hand in religious riots there in 2002 in which Muslims suffered disproportionately. An estimated one-fifth of India's 1.27 billion people belong to faiths or sects other than Hinduism.

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Since Modi’s election, several officials related to the Hindu fundamentalist umbrella groups that support his Bharatiya Janata Party have openly declared their desire to convert Muslims and Christians en masse, claiming that members of both groups are descended from Hindu ancestors who were tricked into converting years ago.

The spate of ghar wapsi, or “homecoming,” ceremonies around the country have contributed, for example, to popularizing the notion among many minorities that Modi’s government is sympathetic to the idea of making India a Hindu-only nation.

But despite the concerns of Imam Ilyasi about whether other faiths have a place in the Hindu nationalist conception of India, Modi has thus far refused to address the issue publicly.

“He is the prime minister of all India, not just of Hindus,” said Ilyasi. “If Obama can speak on the matter publicly, then why hasn’t Modi?”