President speaks out in Delhi on importance of empowering women in India in wake of recent high-profile sexual attacks

Barack Obama challenged India’s record on religious tolerance and women’s rights on Tuesday in a parting speech to students in Delhi that contrasted with the at-times saccharin feel of a state visit designed to highlight the closeness of the two countries.

Though careful to acknowledge inequality in the US, the president devoted a substantial part of his speech to a lecture on the importance of empowering women in society and addressed a recent spate of sexual attacks in the emerging south Asian power.

“We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful,” said Obama. “These are facts. So if nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half of their people.”

“Every daughter deserves the same chance as our sons,” he added. “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.”

A series of high profile gang rapes and other attacks on women in India have prompted widespread public anger. But despite repeated promises by authorities to improve security for women, campaigners say the problem remains acute.

During his only public appearance of the trip without prime minster Narendra Modi by his side, Obama also promoted the rights of religious minorities in the predominantly Hindu country.

“The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts; it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe and rejoice in the beauty of every soul,” said the president, who namechecked prominent Indian Muslims, Sikhs and sportswomen. “It’s when all Indians, whatever your faith, go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan. When you celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh, or Mary Kom,” he said.

Before becoming prime minister, Modi was previously denied a US visa following accusations he had stood by during, or even encouraged, sectarian violence in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed by rioters. The 64 year old former rightwing organiser has described himself as a Hindu nationalist and been criticised for not being more vocal about religious pluralism since taking power.

“No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men,” said Obama. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.”

A series of attempts by rightwing Hindu groups to hold mass conversion ceremonies has sparked controversy in recent months. Last week the hardline Vishnu Hindu Parishad group claimed to have “re-converted” more than 20 Christians in the southern state of Kerala. The organisations come from the same broad political family as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, the US president also acknowledged signs of progress in Indian society, pointing to the symbolic choice of a woman military officer to lead the honour guard on his arrival and to Modi’s humble background as a tea-seller as sign of how India has become more socially mobile.

Modi, a political outsider, comes from low down on the tenacious social hierarchy known as caste which still defines social status and determines opportunities for hundreds of millions of Indians.

Obama’s own background as the first black US president helped soften his blunt message to India as he also highlighted the two country’s shared history of colonialism and oppression. He referenced his grandfather’s work as a cook in Kenya when it was under British control, and when Martin Luther King came to India to draw inspiration from Gandhi, he was introduced to some schoolchildren as a “fellow untouchable”.

“Even as we live in a world of wrenching inequities, we’re also proud to live in countries where even the grandson of cook can become president, even a Dalit can help write a constitution, and even a tea-seller can become prime minister,” Obama said.

“Many countries, including America, grapple with complex questions of identity and inequality,” he added in his speech, delivered before 2,000 students and human rights activists as Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi.

“Right now, in crowded neighbourhoods not far from here, a man is driving an auto-rickshaw, or washing somebody else’s clothes, or doing the hard work no one else will do. A woman is cleaning somebody else’s house. A young man is on a bicycle delivering lunch. A little girl is hauling a heavy bucket of water. Their dreams, their hopes, are just as big and beautiful and worthy as ours.”

The speech prompted lively discussion on Indian television afterwards about whether it would be seen as a snub to Modi, but contrasted with more effusive coverage of earlier speeches and more trivial moments such as pictures of him chewing gum during Republic Day parade.

— Edward-Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere)January 27, 2015

How the Indian press refers to the new global Modi-Obama bromance: “MOBAMA” pic.twitter.com/eV0wXAlnsM

Siddarth Varadarajan, a Delhi-based analyst, said that the “very gentle hint” about religious inclusiveness from Obama sent an “important message”.

“He went about as far as any diplomatic visitor can go, and quoted the constitution, so how can anyone object to that. But it highlights the silence of the prime minister on this issue,” Varadarajan said.

Obama concluded by quoting Gandhi on India’s traditions of tolerance: “He said, ‘for me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree’. Branches of the same majestic tree.”

Obama concluded by quoting Gandhi on India’s traditions of tolerance: “He said, ‘for me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree’. Branches of the same majestic tree.”