Step to solution: Modi govt must admit religious intolerance exists

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 01, 2015 13:56 IST

The adage goes: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But how do you fix something that's broken if you don't accept that it's broken? In other words, the first step towards addressing a problem is to accept that the problem exists.

The BJP government at the centre believes in the latter. It feels that cases of religious intolerance in India are few and far in between and that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are increasingly feeling insecure.

It is this conviction that has the government


a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that is critical of attacks on India's religious minorities, their places of worship and "forced conversions" (ghar wapsi).

A statement released by the external affairs ministry on Thursday said: "Our attention has been drawn to a report of the USCIRF which has passed judgement on religious freedom in India. The report appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society."

New Delhi's disapproval is evident in the wording of the statement: The commission has "passed judgment" on religious freedom in India.

The interesting aspect is that the government is not entirely wrong in panning the


. Indeed, it can be argued that it is the USCIRF's "limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society" that has led it to publish such a report. India is a confluence of different cultures where people from various religions (and sub-sects to those religions) live in relative harmony.

The constitution guarantees the freedom to follow any religion of choice and, there's a method to this madness, a melody to this noise and an order in this chaos called "religious harmony". This is a harmony hard to spot from the outside.

But the USCIRF report is not disputing this fact. It states, "The world's largest democracy with about 1.22 billion people, India has a deeply religious, pluralistic society."

The report, however, points to a slightly different, but no less important, question: Has the current BJP-led NDA government been able to protect this method, sustain this melody and uphold this order? If an honest appraisal is done by the government, at best it can answer this only with a studied silence.

Because the truth is that this government could have and can (and ideally should) do more to assuage the fear (or misconception, depending on what side of the debate you stand) that minorities in India are experiencing today.

There is a sense that a select few fringe, right-wing groups (who falsely claim to speak for the peace-loving majority) are hijacking the religious discourse in India. The deeds of a few individuals and groups are derailing the NDA government's image and giving the world an impression that New Delhi is "soft" on issues of religious intolerance.

It will be convenient and escapist to ridicule the report by pointing out that there is religious intolerance in the US and other Western countries. Recent events like the vandalism of Hindu temples in Washington and Texas point to rising levels of intolerance towards other faiths in the US.

The wave of protests across the US against racial intolerance points to another ugly side that Washington must address. But this does not obviate the Indian government's responsibility to address the problem, rather than brush it under the carpet.

Governments have a funny way of closing their eyes and wishing away problems. How else can one explain statements by Haryana's agriculture minister Om Prakash Dhankar that farmers who commit suicide are cowards and the statement by minister of state for home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary that marital rape is not possible in India because the institution is treated as a "sacrament".

The Narendra Modi-led government should not be on the defensive. Rather, the BJP has got the most to gain (if the political arithmetic were to be considered) by accepting that there have been instances of religious intolerance and that such aberrations will not be tolerated in future.

For a start, the next time a maharaj or a sadhvi or any religious leader makes an insensitive remark, without losing time, condemn it in no uncertain words.

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @vijucherian.)

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