Are Modi’s Words on Religious Freedom in India Just Empty Promises?

By ICC’s India Correspondent, 7/7/2015 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) –
“That was only a promise,” said Cardinal Toppo, commenting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lack of action in protecting Christians under the increasing threat of violence from Hindu extremists in India. After a turbulent first year in power, Modi’s condemnations of religious intolerance and promises to protect religious minorities seem forced. Initially, it took over nine months for Modi to break his silence regarding the issue of religious violence and then, only at a time when circumstances compelled him.

Modi and his government have come under sharp criticism as religious intolerance has escalated. Right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), go unopposed when carrying out attacks on religious minorities, which has led to atrocious attacks on churches and Christians across India.

Modi’s Silence Broken by the U.S.

Due to increasing fear among the religious minorities, leaders of the Christian community made multiple appeals to Prime Minister Modi shortly after his election to speak against the violence targeting the minorities of India. However, neither the government nor the Prime Minister condemned the vicious acts of RSS and other Sangh Parivar affiliates.

It was only after U.S. President Barack Obama made multiple remarks in early 2015 concerning the situation of religious freedom in India that Modi finally broke his silence. The U.S. President made a strong pitch for religious tolerance when he said “every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution and that India will succeed so long it is not ‘splintered’ on religious lines” at an event in the Siri Fort auditorium on the final day of a visit to India. At the National Prayer Breakfast less than a week later, Obama remarked that in India there were “acts of [religious] intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

Shortly after Obama’s remarks, Modi broke his silence on the issues of religious intolerance, claiming 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.”

Modi Claims Religious Freedom for India Abroad

Before traveling to Germany in April, Modi addressed representatives of 195 countries in a packed hall at the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization) in France and claimed that his government is committed to defending the rights and liberties of all Indians.

Observers have pointed out that Modi’s claim at UNESCO, during his maiden trip to Europe, was motivated by foreign investment. Sanjay Kirloskar, an Indian industrialist, said, “Modi was compelled to speak on religious freedom in India,” as many investors in foreign countries are from India’s religious minority communities.

Cardinal Toppo has said, “Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has failed to keep his promise [to take] action to protect Christians under increasing threat from extremist violence.” Cardinal Toppo also observed that the government did “not come out to protect and defend. The Prime Minister has only once spoken in defense of the constitution and he promised to protect the Christians and other minorities. But that was only a promise.”

Time Magazine Interview

Modi gave an interview to Time Magazine around the time when his government marked their first anniversary in office. The Time interview was also given around the time of the USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) report findings of 2014 religious freedom situation in India that placed India in the category of a Tier 2 Country of Particular Concern for its religious freedom violations.

Modi, while touching on several achievements of his first year in office, chose to speak on the government’s sincerity towards the freedom of faith and tolerance. He said that, “All religions and all communities have the same rights and it is my responsibility to ensure their complete and total protection. My government will not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed, and religion. So there is no place for imaginary apprehensions with regard to the rights of the minorities in India.”

Whatever the promises one makes, it is the follow-up actions on those promises that matters the most. India’s Christians hope to hold the government accountable to their promises and seek international solidarity. Will Modi’s promises on the international stage help bring about change for India’s religious minorities? Or will Modi’s promises remain unfulfilled, leaving Christians and other religious minorities to suffer at the hands of extremists?


For interviews, contact William Stark, Regional Manager for South Asia: RM-SAsia@persecution.org

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