Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally spoken out on the subject of religious tolerance. His speech came amidst growing concerns of hostility towards minorities; a series of attacks on churches in Delhi hit the headlines, causing Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to specifically address them in the speech just before Mr Modi's as aberrations that must not be repeated. They were speaking at a function organised to celebrate the canonisation by the Roman Catholic church of two Indians. There, Mr Modi said that the government would not "accept violence against any religion, on any pretext". The prime minister spoke in English for the most part, a possible signal - given his preference for Hindi when addressing a domestic constituency - that he was speaking not just to Indians, but also to assuage concerns further afield. During his visit to India for the Republic Day celebrations, Barack Obama had delivered a speech in which he spoke at length about India's need to maintain unity between those of different faiths; a theme to which the US President returned at a function in Washington some days later. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party's extraordinary defeat in the Delhi Assembly elections had been seen by some observers as being partly caused by concerns about religious violence following riots in Trilokpuri and the attacks on churches.
Whatever the reasons for which Mr Modi has chosen, at long last, to speak up about this important issue, the content of his speech should be welcomed. He quoted an international declaration to which India was a party to insist that the "freedom to have, to retain, and to adopt a religion or belief" would continue to be a priority; he added that his government would give "equal respect to all religions". Further, his speech was peppered with references to India's openness to spiritual influences. Much of this will come as reassurance to India's minorities, even though Mr Modi's critics will say that these were possibly aimed at disarming the Opposition political parties in Parliament where during the forthcoming Budget session the government will need their support to push through its legislative agenda including the passage of some ordinances. But there is little doubt that Mr Modi's assurances will also be seen as a rebuke to conservative elements in Mr Modi's own Sangh Parivar, the family of right-wing Hindu organisations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which Mr Modi has been a life-long member. However, it is important to note that several in the RSS and its affiliates are interpreting Mr Modi's speech differently. They view it as a rebuke to the missionary activities of churches - in particular the reference to a right to "retain" a religion or belief, and another reference to "undue influence" on personal religious choice.
Overall, it is likely that Mr Modi's words will give pause to those within his party and its fraternal organisations who viewed the sweeping victory in last year's general elections as empowering them to bully India's minorities. And, given that, Mr Modi deserves full and ungrudging credit for speaking out, and for the sentiments he expressed.