Prime Minister Narendra Modi was recently invited to be the chief guest at a national seminar on “Religious Witnessing” organized by the Syro-Malabar Church in New Delhi. The seminar was to mark the recent canonization of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia. Modi’s comments at this event seem to have sent leaders and members of Christian groups, as well as secular liberals, into paroxysms of delight. This frenzy possibly has its roots in the unnerving stony silence that the Prime Minister’s Office maintained for months after the recent vandalisations and desecrations of churches in the national capital. This silence was a matter of concern for many and one can understand why the leaders of the Christian communities were relieved that Modi has finally taken initiative on the matter. The delight from various quarters has also been fuelled by the manner in which the media has framed Modi’s statements as a “reaching out” to Christians, and a commitment in favour of freedom of religion.
For my part, I fail to see what the excitement is all about. Not only were Modi’s statements at this event a case of too little, too late; they are also dangerously ambiguous. Rather than supporting non-Hindu religious groups (Christian or otherwise) in the country, his statements in fact underline the Hindutva logics that have resulted in the recent vandalisations and desecrations.
“We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard,” Modi is reported to have said. So far, so good. But it is what comes later that should, if not give cause for alarm, warn us that the Prime Minister has not swerved from the path of the Hindu Right.
The other statements that we should give closer attention to include the folowing: “[m]y government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” In addition, the Financial Times reported Modi as having said, “[m]y 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.”
The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and it is this detail that I have italicised above. In phrasing his supposedly soothing words to the Christians in the country, Modi has also suggested that it is not just supposed majority groups that incite hatred against others but minoritised groups too! These are hardly the salving words one extends toward communities that have been at the receiving end of mob violence. Rather, it suggests that these groups may have done something to invite the violence. This position is, of course, in keeping with the position of the Hindu Right that argues that it is Hindus who are under attack, and that all forms of violence from the Hindu Right are merely the result of righteous anger. The VHP is reported to have said as much, indicating that Modi was not referring to the Hindu Right, but in fact delivering a lecture on the good behaviour expected from Christians in the country.
In light of these facts, one can assume that when Modi assures that “We will act strongly against such violence” what he is doing is in fact playing out the standard tactics of the Hindu Right. These tactics include the march toward an authoritarian state. Authoritarian states have a peculiar relationship with violence. They would ideally not like to exercise mob violence continuously, knowing full well that violence once unleashed can be hard to control. Further, the leaders of the violence could develop their own agenda and pose a challenge to the existing leadership. Thus, what they would like is to strategically exercise this violence, allowing it brief and controlled reign from time to time. The fact of past violence is used as a threat to repressed groups. One need only look at the playing out of the genocidal violence in Gujarat in 2002 to understand the first part of the equation that I have just elaborated. And it is not just Gujarat; one could argue that in India, mob violence does not simply happen, but occurs because the state allows for it to take place.
In the light of international outcry, and the Presidential rebuke from Obama the anti-Christian violence is now an embarrassment to the Modi regime. In this context, it is now perfectly comprehensible if heads will roll for the anti-Christian violence in Delhi. Also, bear in mind that this assertion of the intolerance of the state against violence will just as easily be turned toward members of besieged faith groups. This fact was in evidence both in the recent protests in Delhi, but also in 2008, when Christians in Mangalore protesting against attacks on their churches were arrested and attacked by the police.
That this assertion of an inclination toward law and order has little to do with securing the security of non-Hindu groups becomes evident in Modi’s statements about the freedom of religion. In assuring that he stands behind the right to freedom of religion, he also felt the need to add that there ought to be no coercion or undue influence in the course of adopting the religion of one’s choice. This latter caveat is critical, because coercion and undue influence is exactly what Hindu nationalists allege against both Christian and Muslim missionaries. Hindu nationalists of all stripes have since Independence used this allegation of coercion and undue influence as a way to place legal restrictions on the freedom of faith. As a result, the various Freedom of Religion legislations in India make conversions actions that can be monitored by the state executive. In doing so the Indian state makes a mockery of the right to freedom of religion. Modi has simply confirmed a repressive practice of the Indian state and is being applauded for it.
The final straw is the manner in which Modi chose to frame the entire incident. From the Hindustan Times we hear that his statements that supposedly assure Christians that their place in the country is secure were framed by Modi pointing out that “equal respect” for all faiths was an ancient Indian value that was also integral to the Constitution. “This principle of equal respect and treatment for all faiths has been a part of India’s ethos for thousands of years. And that is how it became integral to the Constitution of India. Our Constitution did not evolve in a vacuum. It has roots in the ancient cultural traditions of India.”
What nobody seems to have realised is that Modi’s entire statement at this event was couched in references to Hindu scriptures and ‘Indian’ traditions alone. There was no recognition of the fact that the Constitution of India was in fact born via inspiration from universal modern values. The fact that equal respect and treatment is marked out as a feature of “Indian ethos” only underlines the Indian nationalist allegation that religious violence was brought into the subcontinent via the Christians and Muslims. Adding insult to injury is the fact that this history of the subcontinent is entirely fabricated. Historians, such as Romila Thapar, have indicated that rather than being an idyllic period, ancient India was marked by vicious religious violence between various brahmanical sects, and also between the Jain and Buddhist groups and brahmanical groups.
One can understand that Christian leaders, especially Bishops and their spokespersons, are obliged by protocol and a sense of caution to make polite noises in recognition of the Prime Minister’s statements. But let us be under no illusion. Modi’s words are not statements that assure security to non-Hindu religious groups in India. He has not moved an inch from the position of the Hindu rightist groups to which he owes his primary allegiance. If anything, his statements are another public relations exercise from camp Modi. Further, the Christians are not the audience of this public relations exercise. Rather, they are merely the tools through which the international image conscious Modi government can indicate to the world that all is well in Hindu nationalist run India.
(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo on 20 Feb 2015)