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India's empty rhetoric on religious freedom

Modi's assurances of ending violence are contradicted by his party faithful

John Dayal, Delhi

John Dayal, Delhi

Updated: April 24, 2015 05:00 PM GMT
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India's empty rhetoric on religious freedom

Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, speaks in Ahmedabad in January (AFP Photo/Sam Panthaky) 


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Whether you love her or hate her, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata did her main work with her hands and heart among people that even religion forgot. We in India are blessed to have known her, as an earlier generation was lucky to have known Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma.

The Macedonian-born Albanian nun, who made India her home and her country, was abused, vilified and opposed even in her lifetime, and by experts who knew their theology and their sociology. Many have written books and others have made documentary films condemning her.

But hundreds of millions across the world, and a fair proportion of Hindus in India, called her a saint long before her cause went before the Vatican.

Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or RSS, heads a political and social group that thrives in the legal shadows and seeks to mobilize Hindus on an ideological argument of religious nationalism.

The RSS has spawned a large brood of other organizations under the collective of the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party, currently in power in India, as its political wing. The two current volunteer leaders of the RSS are Atal Behari Vajpayee, prime minister of India from 1998 to 2004, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May 2014.

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Bhagwat’s statement last week that Blessed Teresa’s work with the poor, the orphans and the dying was motivated by her desire to convert people to Christianity — seen in light of his political connections — has been rejected beneath contempt by every thinking person in India, especially in Kolkata.

The significance of Bhagwat’s comments is in their timing, not in their content, which has been consistent with what his predecessors had been saying while Blessed Teresa was gathering people on the verge of death and filling their last moments on earth with dignity and love.

Bhagwat timed his remarks to within a few days of the widely welcomed speech by Modi in which he assured all Indians of their constitutional right to freedom of faith and security. 

While the prime minister did try to put majority and minority communities in the same frame as equally culpable for past violence, Christians in particular saw his remarks as targeting the RSS and the Hindutva Parivar. It is obvious now that the Sangh has not heard Modi, or rather continues to believe that he did not really mean what he said last week.

Bhagwat has also continued to stress that India is a Hindu nation, with one people professing one religion — a sort of theocracy and not a polyglot, multi-ethnic country containing just about every religion in the world, knit into a secular and functional democracy.

Several leading lights of the ruling party also seem to believe this to be the case. There has been remarkably little toning down of the rhetoric despite a severe drubbing the party received some weeks ago in elections to the Legislative Assembly of the national capital territory of Delhi.

Bhagwat’s remarks also came ahead of the golden jubilee of the RSS-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which works among indigenous tribes, in the Kandhamal district of Orissa State, which saw massive religious violence against Christians in 2007 and 2008 in which more than 120 persons were killed, a nun and other women raped, 6,000 houses and 300 churches destroyed.

Praveen Togadia, the international head of the VHP, was the chief guest at those celebrations. His role in precipitating that violence, which followed the assassination of a senior VHP leader in the district, was alleged but never investigated.

Bhagwat’s statement reopens a larger political debate on the revival of religious propaganda to divert the attention of the people from issues of governance and economic recovery that Modi had promised in his electoral campaign, but is finding it increasingly hard to deliver.

Though the government has made half-hearted efforts to insulate itself from the fallout of Bhagwat’s remarks, many are concerned that Modi’s recent assurances notwithstanding, the two are actually working in tandem, and that the rights and safety of Christians and other religious minorities remain in peril.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council.

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