In the final hours of a visit meant to demonstrate the deep societal ties between the United States and India, President Barack Obama briefly broke from his gushing praise for the new Prime Minister to make a soft but undisguised push toward gender equality and religious freedom.
Speaking to an audience of students and activists in New Delhi, Obama declared the U.S. was India’s best-suited partner as it makes rapid economic advances and appears poised to overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation.
But he didn’t veil his take on recent attacks against women here, urging the country away from violence against women and religious minorities. Recent rapes in India have put harsh focus on India’s gender politics.
“Every girl’s life matters,” Obama said in New Delhi. “Every daughter deserves the same chance as our sons. And 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 that she deserves.”
Sexual assaults became a high-profile problem in India after a young woman was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. The victim later died. Subsequent incidents of sexual violence — including at the hands of an Uber driver — placed global scrutiny on India’s laws and culture.
Obama traveled to India in the hopes of capitalizing on the deep personal warmth he’s quickly developed with the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose effervescent welcome for the American president was covered enthusiastically and exhaustively by Indian media.
That’s a distant cry from Modi’s arrival in the United States in September, which was marred by awkward questions over his visa status. Modi, a member of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, had previously been denied entry to the U.S. for an alleged role in a massacre of Muslims.
Obama said on Tuesday it was the responsibility of every citizen to uphold the freedom of religious that’s enshrined in India’s constitution.
“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 said.
Obama’s parting speech Tuesday was one of his few moments apart from Modi during his stay in India. The pair hugged upon Obama’s arrival, sipped tea and meandered through a formal garden, and sat for hours behind rain-splattered bulletproof glass reviewing the annual Republic Day parade.
White House officials say the level of personal interaction between the leaders exceeded even their already-high expectations, and claim the relationship greased the way for progress on a civilian nuclear deal to allow U.S. firms to construct power plants in India. Both sides also moved toward more defense cooperation and trade pacts.
But despite their talk of cooperation, obvious differences persist between the U.S. and India that could preclude cooperation on areas like combating climate change.
During his remarks Tuesday, Obama said India must commit to reducing emissions that cause climate change, even as the manufacturing and power plants that produce that pollution drive India to new economic heights.
“Here’s the truth: even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if growing countries like India—with soaring energy needs—don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change,” Obama said.