There are two ways of looking at Narendra Modi’s speech today (17 October) to a Christian congregation in Delhi called to celebrate the elevation to sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia. One is to see it as a belated reassurance to the minority community that his government will not tolerate what has been loosely described in the media as “attacks on churches”; the other way is to see it as Modi’s challenge to the minorities to also appreciate what India is really about. It’s not just a place to claim rights, but imbibe its ancient heritage of tolerance.

That he made overt attempts to dispel fears among minorities was obvious, given the wild statements made by some elements of the Sangh parivar. It was in this context that he said: “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 added: “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Note the words I have italicised. Is Modi merely assuring the minorities of protection from the hateful things being said (or done) by the majority, or also implying that inciting hatred can happen at the minority end as well? He is saying that he will not allow anyone, minority or majority, to incite hatred. This is not a promise to minorities alone.

Then note another passage where he swears by “every word” of a declaration made at an Inter-Faith conference at The Hague on 10 December 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And what did that declaration say? It said, inter alia: “We consider the freedom to have, to retain and to adopt a religion or belief of one’s personal choice, without coercion or inducement, to be an undeniable right.”

This is a formulation that even the RSS would accept, with the key words it would look particularly favourably at being “without coercion or inducement.”

This was the context for Modi’s assertion that he would defend freedom of faith. He said: “Speaking for India, and for my government, I declare that my government stands by every word of the above declaration. 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.” (Read more about the inter-faith declaration here).

The Inter-Faith declaration made no references to the right to convert. But Modi said more.

In what the Lutyens Elite and card-carrying secularists are unwilling to admit, Modi clearly implied that India’s secularism was not the gift of Nehru, the Left- Liberal or even the makers of the constitution; it was, in fact, the other way around: the constitution and secularism was the gift of India’s ancient values of tolerance.

He said: “Our Constitution did not evolve in a vacuum. It has roots in the ancient cultural traditions of India. The principle of equal respect has been a part of India’s ethos for thousands of years and that is how it became integral to the Constitution of India.”

For good measure, he also slipped in Swami Vivekananda, his favourite icon: “The tradition of welcoming, respecting and honouring all faiths is as old as India itself. As Swami Vivekananda said: ‘We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.’”

This is nothing but a challenge to minority, and exclusivist religions, which asks them to respect the tolerant traditions of India even when they seek their own religious rights.

Just in case someone missed the message, Modi said what Swami Vivekananda said held good not only for the nation, or his government, but “all governments, run by any political party.”

Quoting Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s reference to a mind without fear, Modi said it was Tagore’s “heaven of freedom that we are duty-bound to create and preserve. We believe that there is truth in every religion. Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha vadanti.

Once again, Modi’s quote from the Rig Veda challenged his listeners to accept the reality that the same truth may be told differently by different religions.

There is no reason for any religion to claim superiority over another. Tolerance has to cut both ways.

But that is not quite the way his speech will be interpreted in newspapers tomorrow.


Tolerance has to cut both ways: The message in PM Modi’s speech on religion