NEW DELHI — When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the stage this week at an event honoring Indian Catholic saints, he raised an issue that many — including some in the Obama administration — had long hoped he would take up: religious freedom.
“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.
“My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” he added.
The reaction was widespread and impassioned in a country that has had its share of religion-fueled tensions: a history of bloodshed between the majority Hindus and the large Muslim minority and claims of persecution from smaller groups, including Christians.
Religious leaders of different faiths heralded Modi for his words. Better late than never, opposition leaders said of his remarks. But some in his own party — built on the foundation of Hindu nationalism — accused him of pandering to the secular crowd, tweeting their disapproval with the hashtag #secularmodi.
Modi spoke after weeks of debate and growing concern that he has been unable to control the extremist elements of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Just days earlier, President Obama had taken on the issue in India in two speeches, saying most recently that there had been acts of intolerance in India that would have “shocked” independence leader Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi.
In recent weeks, religious leaders and politicians had urged the Indian prime minister to make a decisive statement against religious intolerance amid a campaign by some conservative Hindu groups to convert non-Hindus, as well as acts of vandalism and thefts at New Delhi churches.
But until this week, Modi had stayed silent. And some are wondering why he chose to speak out now.
“He kept quiet for so long when Christians and Muslims were being maligned,” said the imam of Fatehpuri Mosque in Old Delhi, Mukarram Ahmed, 63.
“This statement comes after much defamation in India and abroad,” Ahmed said. “One must think then: Is this statement coming out of conviction or helplessness and pressure? For a leader who always speaks in Hindi, he said this in English. Is this then meant for the global audience and not so much for the domestic audience?”
Nonetheless, the imam said Modi “did the right thing.”
Modi, 64, remains a lightning rod on faith and tolerance in India because of his troubled history.
As a state leader in 2002, he was accused of doing little to stop clashes between Hindus and Muslims that left more than 1,000 people dead. This led the United States to deny him a visa in 2005. The matter was put to rest only when Modi was elected prime minister last year and Obama invited him to the White House.
Although the two leaders apparently forged something of a friendship during meetings in October and January, Obama has spoken out twice this year on the subject of religious tolerance in India.
In his last speech during his January visit, Obama noted that India “will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.” He addressed the concern again at the National Prayer Breakfast this month.
A global report last year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom cited increased instances of “communal and religiously motivated violence” against India’s minority faiths, including Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. The report partly attributed the rise to “divisive language” by political leaders.
But it was Obama’s comments that sparked indignation in India, particularly in light of racial flash points in the United States.
Critics also cite a Feb. 6 incident of alleged police brutality involving an Indian man visiting his son in Alabama. Officers responding to a call about a “suspicious person” stopped the grandfather, who was walking on a suburban street, and apparently took him into custody with such force that the man suffered partial paralysis. Alabama’s governor later apologized, and an officer was arrested and charged with assault.
“Do they have any right to teach India, to preach to India?” said Surendra Jain, the joint general secretary of the Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad. “They should set their own home right.”
Jain said Modi was aiming his remarks Tuesday at the Christian community rather than Hindus.
“Hindus have tolerance. We are not playing any hate game toward Christian society,” Jain said.
In recent days, Delhi police have taken pains to note that more than 200 temples and other religious institutions have been vandalized in the capital in the past year, along with the churches and a Catholic school. And they said they have not been able to determine whether the church vandalism was linked. At least one was a drunken prank, police said.
Still, Catholics took to the streets in protest, saying they have been living in a climate of fear. After Modi’s speech, they said they expect results.
“We expect his words to be transmitted into actions,” said the Rev. Savarimuthu Shankar, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Delhi. “We want the government to take strong actions against fringe elements and all people who disturb religious harmony, especially his own party men and [right-wing Hindu] groups who make provocative statements.”
Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.