By John Dayal, @JohnDayal
Members of the Syro-Malabar rite in the Indian Catholic Church last week invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak at an event to commemorate the canonization of two Catholic saints born in Kerala.
We would be ingrates if we did not thank him for speaking up at last on hate crimes, as we have urged him to do for the past six months, and as we requested him to do when a delegation met him at his residence on Christmas Eve last year.
Modi was not exactly warm at that meeting, blaming the Christian community of exaggerating minor incidents in the international media, even insinuating their “compulsions” prevented them from standing with him on his development agenda.
The prime minister has made his statement against religious violence, at a time of his choosing, and in many ways at an audience of his choosing. There was no occasion for questions, no opportunities to seek clarification about ambiguities in his address — deliberate, it would seem — and a few omissions.
One such omission was the lack of any reference to the 60-year-old issue of Dalit Christians and their demands for parity in Scheduled Caste rights with Sikhs and Buddhists, and of course Hindus, of Dalit origin.
But Modi’s recent statement is a change from what he had said then, after first ordering the cameras to be switched off.
I would like to hope that he wants his comments to address the trust deficit among religious minorities — not just Christians — in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, now certainly quite the mainstream of political discourse with its religious nationalism, which it credits for bringing the party to power.
In many ways, however, Modi was speaking to an international audience, and particularly the investment bankers and corporate giants, whose concern over human rights and freedom of religion issues in India — which ranks as a country of concern in many international indexes — was articulated by United States President Barack Obama as much as by the editorial board of the New York Times.
Modi’s development agenda depends on massive infusions of Western capital.
It will be of abiding intellectual interest why Modi did not chose to make his statement at a public meeting of the Muslim Ulema. Muslims outnumber Christians in India by a factor of five. So, a public address at a gathering of Muslims may have been more effective in repairing the damage done to his image by the 2002 Gujarat riots and the recent abuse of Muslims by popular BJP leaders in the party’s electoral campaigns and public programs.
But it might not have helped him in the context of the current wave of Islamaphobia in parts of the Western world and its media.
Freedom of faith is a part of India’s civilization — of that there can be no doubt. Buddha and Mahavira’s rejection of Vedic hegemony is a part of that intellectual and practical freedom, and of the birth much later of the Sikh faith.
The incorporation of freedom of faith and expression in the national charter was also a consequence of the freedom struggle that saw the participation of all ethnic, linguistic and religious communities in the cause of independence, equality and justice.
India is also a signatory to the United Nations Charter and its declarations on freedom of faith and civil liberties, stressed once again in the documents of the Hague Convention.
As prime minister, Modi and his government have taken an oath to protect the constitution, and all that it guarantees to the citizens of India, and in fact, even to others who may be resident in this land.
There has been much tragedy and human suffering because the constitutional guarantees have not been fully practiced, and because some political groups with an ideology of religious nationalism and a peculiar definition of patriotism have enjoyed political patronage and government protection.
We are happy that Modi did not call for a “10-year moratorium”, as he did in his speech on Independence Day last year. He said, rather, “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”
The talk of a moratorium had not gone down well with civil society and had seemed very cynical.
The minorities have not been attacking anyone. Neither have they exceeded, or violated, the limits set by law of the land in the exercise of their rights to profess, practice and propagate their faith.
Modi nonetheless brushed over this, warning against both minority and majority intolerance.
This attempt at parity has its own meaning and implications in small towns and villages where police seem to believe it is the Muslim or the Christian who causes all the problems.
Despite the existence of laws against religious conversions, called Freedom of Religion acts, in six states — and with his government ministers demanding such a law for the entire country — even politically hostile governments have not been able to bring indictments for inducing anyone to become a Christian through force or through fraudulent means.
Modi yet chose to allude to “fraud”. It is clear what was in his mind. He did not refer to the issue of Dalit Christians, raised by bishops who spoke before him at the function. His party and his government are opposed to restoring Dalit Christian rights given to others of these castes, arguing that this would open the floodgates of conversion out of Hinduism.
One cannot but welcome any direction from government that anticipates and prevents targeted religious violence and hate. This actually needs a comprehensive law.
The BJP has consistently opposed such a law, which Congress governments half-heartedly tried to pass in the last two parliaments. But even in the absence of such a law, there are provisions that can be effectively used by state governments to control hate campaigns, coercion and violence.
It remains to be seen if state governments and their police forces will act against hate crimes and hate mongers. Indeed, the future will tell if groups professing religious nationalism have heard Modi as the Christian leaders have heard him.
Televised debates suggest the Sangh Parivar has not heard him. Or perhaps they think the prime minister does not mean what he says.
The author is civil rights activist and senior journalist. He is also the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.