Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged on Tuesday to uphold freedom of faith and crack down on inciters of sectarian tensions, his first unequivocal condemnation of religious violence after a series of attacks on Christian properties in Delhi.
In his clearest commitment to secularism yet, the Prime Minister told church leaders every citizen had the right to follow any faith without coercion and vowed to protect all religious groups in India.
“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,” Modi said at a national ceremony of the Syro-Malabar Church to celebrate the canonisation of Saints Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia.
“My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.”
The Prime Minister had been silent so far on religious tensions in India despite mounting criticism over growing intolerance of Hindu hardliners and the recent Delhi attacks that fuelled concerns religious minorities were being increasingly targeted after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.
Modi rarely attends events organised by minority communities and his decision to speak at the conference was seen as an attempt to reassure the Christian community after the BJP’s bruising defeat in the recent Delhi election.
His comments were also seen as a condemnation of a recent spate of forced religious conversions by hardline Hindu groups across the country, an issue he had refused to comment on despite pressure from the Opposition in Parliament.
Reading in English from a prepared speech aimed as much at a global audience as those at home, Modi endorsed pluralism, calling “equal respect” for all faiths, an ancient Indian value that was also integral to the Constitution.
“This principle of equal respect and treatment for all faiths has been a part of India`s ethos for thousands of years. And that is how it became integral to the Constitution of India. Our Constitution did not evolve in a vacuum. It has roots in the ancient cultural traditions of India.”
Last week, hundreds of Christians protested the attacks on churches in the Capital, saying they saw a “deliberate” pattern of targeting the community.
Church leaders said on Tuesday they were reassured by Modi’s speech but would look forward to its implementation. “It was joyous thing to hear the Prime Minister give these assurances. We have to wait and verify its outcome,” Father Jacob Barnabas, the apostolic in-charge of the Syro-Malabar Church organisation outside Kerala, told HT.
Modi’s comments came after US President Barack Obama called for religious tolerance in a speech wrapping up his recent visit, saying India would not succeed if it was splintered along religious lines.
Reacting to Modi’s speech, the Congress said it was “better late than never” on the prime minister’s part. “However, the proof of the pudding lies in stopping the vitriolic agenda of the RSS and its fringe elements,” party spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said.