Indian Prime Minister: “equal respect to all religions”

The Indian Express reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that his government will not allow any religious group to incite hatred and will strongly act against any religious violence. The Prime Minister, who has been accused by opposition and Christian groups of turning a blind eye to a string of recent attacks on five churches and a Christian school in Delhi, said his government “gives equal respect to all religions”.

“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” he said at a function today in New Delhi.

In a stern warning to fringe elements, he said, “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”

Noting that the world is increasingly witnessing division and hostility on religious lines and the issue has become a matter of global concern, the Prime Minister said the ancient Indian plea of mutual respect for all faiths is now beginning to manifest in global discourse.

Observing that the world is at crossroads, he said if not crossed properly it “can throw us back to the dark days of bigotry, fanaticism and bloodshed”. He further said that this harmonious convergence among religions could not be achieved even when the world entered the third millennium.

Invoking Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, Modi said that equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian.
Seeking harmony, the Prime Minister appealed to all religious groups to act with restraint, mutual respect and tolerance in the true spirit of the ancient nation which is manifest in the Constitution and in line with the Hague Declaration.

Modi’s remarks have come after US President Barack Obama said the “acts of intolerance” experienced by religious faiths of all types in India in the past few years would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.

World Watch Monitor reports that critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were ‘pleasantly surprised’ by his unequivocal assertion of the right to freedom of religion while addressing a major church event in New Delhi on February 17, ending his silence on a recent spate of anti-Christian violence and propaganda.

However, while hailing Modi’s stand, the mood among Christians, secular activists and media remains unanimously to urge Modi to ‘walk the talk’. Modi’s federal government is led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda.

Modi’s declaration followed closely on from his BJP’s poor performance in the recent election to the Assembly of Delhi State. The BJP had won all the seven Delhi State seats in the national Parliament in May 2014, but could win only three of 70 seats to the Delhi Assembly in the Feb. 7 poll.

Modi’s statement on religious freedom – televised across the nation by three dozen news channels – cheered many, while he drew several rounds of loud applause from the audience that listened to him with rapt attention.

P J Kurian, a deputy speaker of the upper house of Indian Parliament and a member of the (Orthodox) Mar Thoma (St Thomas) church from Kerala, said the recent incidents were an ‘aberration’. Kurian recalled “From the time St Thomas the Apostle sowed the seeds of Christianity in Kerala, it was Hindu kings who protected Christians, and even gave them land to build churches.”

Arun Jaitley, finance minister in Modi’s Cabinet, went a step further and told the gathering that what had happened in Delhi was “an unacceptable aberration in a society as liberal as India…those mischief-makers would have no space in India.”

Opposition parties promptly reminded Modi that it was ‘not enough’ to make declarations but ‘time to act’ against the fringe elements in the Hindu nationalist groups who have been carrying out violence, threats and propaganda against the religious minorities.

Commending Modi for ‘Breaking Silence’ in its Feb 18 editorial, the Times of India wrote “Modi has done well to uphold religious freedom and the right to choose.”

However, the editorial reminded Modi that “he must openly counter BJP’s ostensible well-wishers…Only by walking the talk on inclusive development and sidelining the extremist fringe can the government repay the faith the people have reposed in it.” This caution came in the wake of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Council, VHP for short] promptly describing Modi’s sermon on tolerance as ‘aimed at Christians only’.

The vociferous VHP has been conducting ‘Ghar Whapsi’ [meaning ‘home coming’] or re-conversion of Christians in several places and threatening to re-convert all the ‘150 million’ who, it says, have forsaken Hinduism since Indian independence in 1947.

“We are very happy that the Prime Minister has finally spoken strongly and emphatically” Catholic archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi [who’d earlier addressed the gathering in Modi’s presence] told World Watch Monitor. “We hope now that he will enforce the solemn promise he has made to our community,” pointed out archbishop Couto, who felt he had been forced to lead street protests after the repeated attacks on Catholic churches and institutions. “If he fails to do that, we can now always remind him what he has assured us.”

John Dayal, spokesman for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights launched in January to monitor anti-Christian violence emailed his group: “We would be ungrateful if we do not thank the Prime Minister for speaking up at last against hate crimes…We had been urging him to do (so) for the past six months, especially as we requested him when a delegation met him at his residence on Christmas Eve.

“Freedom of faith, as enunciated in the Hague documents [quoted by Prime Minister Modi in his address, from an interfaith conference held in 2008], is quite a part of the Indian Constitution. There has been much tragedy and human suffering because the constitutional guarantees have not been fully practiced. And because political groups have enjoyed immunity and government patronage and protection,” pointed out Dayal.

“We are happy that he did not call for a ‘ten-year moratorium’ [i.e. suspension of communal or religious violence… Modi had declared such a moratorium in his first Independence Day address on Aug 15, 2014].” Dayal continued: “The future will tell if groups professing religious nationalism have heard him…And if state governments and their police forces will act against hate crimes and hatemongers.”

Meanwhile Pramod Singh, President of the Christian Legal Association of India urged: “The statement made by the PM should be welcomed and acknowledged by us wholeheartedly. We should be thankful to God for whatever or whoever has prompted making of this statement. …In the fitness of things we should mark the words and remind the concerned of these words if, God forbid, such a situation arises in future.”