Christians, Muslims fear US president’s plea for tolerance will not be heeded
- John Dayal, Delhi
- January 30, 2015
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, does not like to be told that he, his government, his political party or the cadres of his old group, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS], have done something wrong.
Over the course of three days this week, he was politely reminded that India’s religious minorities, particularly, were uneasy, and any adverse occurrences would seriously impact the promise of development on which he rode to power last year.
US President Barack Obama made international headlines with his “town hall” speech in Delhi as he concluded a three-day visit to India for its Republic Day.
The speech offered a rather sharp lesson on what makes a country great — not economic progress or military might, but the unity of its people brought about by a shared destiny, the hope of progress among the most marginalized and a sense of security among its religious minorities.
But it was the Indian president, the 79-year old Pranab Mukherjee, who delivered a homily that was the strongest caution yet about the threat posed to unity and progress in India from the religious nationalism of the RSS.
Mukherjee did not name the RSS, or its many associates in the Sangh Parivar family, but his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day on January 26 — which marks the promulgation of the constitution in 1950 — dwelt at some length on the issue.
In his address, Mukherjee said: “In an international environment where so many countries are sinking into the morass of theocratic violence … we have always reposed our trust in faith-equality where every faith is equal before the law and every culture blends into another to create a positive dynamic.
“The violence of the tongue cuts and wounds people’s hearts. The Indian constitution is the holy book of democracy. It is a lodestar for the socio-economic transformation of an India whose civilization has celebrated pluralism, advocated tolerance and promoted goodwill between diverse communities. These values, however, need to be preserved with utmost care and vigilance.”
Mukherjee touched on a point that has worried many among those who voted for Modi, hoping he would bring about change and end the corruption and economic coma in which India found itself in the last years of the Congress administration led by Manmohan Singh.
This was the increasing cacophony of many in the Bharatiya Janata Party, including several ministers and members of parliament, who were supporting a demand that India mark itself out as a Hindu Rashtra or Nation, and stop appeasing Muslims and Christians.
Both minority religious groups are seen as enemies of the nation and the majority.
Some among them were quite stridently asking that the constitution be scrapped and replaced by a more “nationalistic” one rooted not in Western concepts but in India’s Hindu tradition.
Industrialists, bankers and businessmen hoping that the new regime would be able to attract international investors and partners, especially from the US, found its response turning tepid, despite Modi’s much-touted visits to Washington, New York, Beijing and Tokyo.
Investors became hesitant not just because economic reforms were not taking place at the speed promised, but also because the country’s human rights environment had, if anything, sharply deteriorated.
The so-called “Ghar Wapsi”, or homecoming campaign, launched by the Sangh Parivar just after the general election to forcibly convert Dalit and Tribal Christians and Muslims to Hinduism was put on hold a week before Obama’s state visit.
It was never in doubt that the campaign, and violence targeting religious groups, would resume.
And resume it did, the day after Obama left India.
Recent data shows almost 150 recorded cases of violence against Christians last year, and several in recent days. Violence against Muslims is feared to be several times more.
The hate campaign, meanwhile, has been ramped up with government leaks from 2011 census data stating that the Muslim population has soared.
The official desegregated data of religious populations is among the last to be made public, but nationalists like to stoke alarm by saying that Muslims breed at a rate that would see them overtake the Hindu population within this century.
The leaked data does show an increase in the Muslim population. Even though the growth rate slowed from 29 percent to 24 percent between 1991 and 2001, it is still higher than the national average of 18 percent for the decade.
It is not just fringe elements or political mavericks who suggest solutions that would be deemed anti-democratic even in military dictatorships — including disenfranchisement of religious groups, or asking Hindu women to produce 10 or more children to maintain a demographic superiority.
There is controversy now about a series of media advertisements by the government that has illustrations of the illustrated preamble of the constitution without two key words, “secular” and “socialist”.
These words were not there in the document signed on January 26, 1950, but were introduced in an amendment passed by parliament in the 1970s.
Much of the social legislation passed in the closing decades of the last century, including employment for rural poor, and scholarships for Muslim youth in particular, were born from those two words.
Talk among those in the highest quarters that the constitution is better off without socialism and secularism has understandably sent shockwaves among the rural poor, Tribals, Dalits, as well as Muslims and Christians in general.
There are growing calls for the Modi government to heed Mukherjee’s warning and stop political discourse becoming a competition in hysteria.
Obama’s parting, and cutting, remarks are evidence that the world is watching India as it stakes its claim to be a member of the elite global economic and strategic clubs.
“Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children — all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love… Our freedom of religion is written into our founding documents. It’s part of America’s very first amendment,” Obama said.
“Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.
“In both our countries — in all countries — upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person,” he said.
“Every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”
Unfortunately, many in the Indian civil rights movement, especially activists on freedom of faith issues, fear their struggle will get increasingly grimmer.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.