Narendra Modi with Cardinal George Allencherry (left) at an event organised by the Christian community on Tuesday (photo: The Hindu)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally broken his silence on the recent attacks against Christian institutions in Delhi. He vowed on Tuesday to protect all religious groups, making it clear that he supported the religious plurality of India.
"I condemn all incidents of violence where religious minorities were targeted," Modi said at an event organised by the Christian community to celebrate the beatification of two Indians by Pope Francis last year.
"No religious group can incite violence ... my government will ensure there is complete freedom of faith," he declared.
This is the first time that Modi, a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist, has condemned religious intolerance. Since coming to power last May the prime minister has been criticised for not commenting on incidents of religious violence and on conversions by Hindu right-wing groups.
According to Reuters, religious conversions have become a sensitive issue in recent months after hardliners with links to the BJP said Hinduism was under threat and started a ‘ghar vapsi’ (Return Home) campaign to convince Christians and Muslims to change their faith.
Critics say that Modi's government has failed to protect religious minorities and rein in Hindu extremists emboldened by his election victory last year.
Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama had warned against religious intolerance during his visit to India and said the country's success depended on its not splintering along religious lines.
A recent series of attacks on Christian institutions in Delhi has fuelled concerns that minorities are being targeted. After a sixth attack, this time on a Christian school, Modi summoned Delhi's police chief last week, but leaders of the community complained that he needed to do more to make them feel safe.
In a scathing editorial earlier this month, the New York Times said, "Attacks at Christian places of worship have prompted no response from the man elected to represent and to protect all of India's citizens."
The newspaper blamed Modi for his "deafening silence" on the attacks. "Nor has he addressed the mass conversion to Hinduism of Christians and Muslims who have been coerced or promised money," it said.
The prime minister appears to have been spurred into action followed the drubbing his party received in Delhi’s assembly election, where it won just three of 70 seats. The rising tide of religious intolerance may have been an issue for voters, and Modi seems to have belatedly felt the need to speak out and make his position clear.
"My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly," he said.
"Everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence," Modi said, in a clear message to Hindu hardliners.
"The principle of equal respect for all faiths has been a part of Indian ethos. It is integral to the constitution of India," he added.