February 17, 2015


[Political commentators said Mr. Modi had been wary of alienating his support base by commenting on recent attacks, but his party’s crushing defeat in state elections in Delhi last week might have persuaded him to speak out.]


NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India said on Tuesday that his government would not “accept violence against any religion, on any pretext” and that it would take forceful steps to prevent and prosecute such crimes, in a speech widely interpreted as a response to a series of attacks on Roman Catholic churches in and around New Delhi.
“My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the minority or the majority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” Mr. Modi said at a New Delhi ceremony to honor the recent canonization of two Indians by the Vatican. “I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”
For weeks, church officials and rights campaigners have urged Mr. Modi to address a growing sense of insecurity among the country’s religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.
During a visit to India in late January, President Obama also raised the issue of tolerance, telling a crowd of students, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.” He reiterated that position after his return to the United States.
Mr. Modi made no reference in his remarks to specific episodes of intolerance or to individual groups. Many commentators saw his comments as a warning to right-wing Hindu organizations, which gave Mr. Modi his start in politics and helped him rise to power.
Mr. Modi’s electoral base is largely made up of Hindus, who constitute about 80 percent of India’s population, and his association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., a Hindu nationalist organization, dates to his childhood.
Political commentators said Mr. Modi had been wary of alienating his support base by commenting on recent attacks, but his party’s crushing defeat in state elections in Delhi last week might have persuaded him to speak out.
“I think he’s been wanting to do it, but has not been able to gather courage to do it,” said Shekhar Gupta, a journalist and television commentator. “One, because he is deep down an R.S.S. man. He does deep down share the same beliefs and concerns. And second, he was really shy about taking on his spiritual and ideological establishment.”
But that calculus shifted, Mr. Gupta said, after Mr. Modi “got rebuked by Obama not once, but twice.”
Another factor, he said, were the Delhi elections, in which Muslim and Christian voters turned en masse to the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, party, rejecting the governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Delhi has given the message that in India there is no vote for beating up on anybody,” he said. “People want peace.”
In recent weeks, at least five Catholic churches in and around Delhi have reported attacks of various kinds, including arson, burglary, vandalism and stone throwing. Another suspicious episode, what appeared to be a robbery at a Catholic girls’ school in the capital, was reported on Friday. There were no reports of injuries in any of the attacks.
Though the Delhi police have said they have no evidence that the churches were targeted for religious reasons, some Christian leaders have speculated that the episodes were an attempt by right-wing Hindu groups to intimidate India’s Christian minority. They have also expressed alarm at campaigns by right-wing Hindu groups to convert members of religious minorities to Hinduism.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Tuesday condemned the church vandalism, saying, “These attacks are unacceptable aberrations, and there is no space in India for such incidents and people.”
Mr. Modi was more abstract in his remarks, arguing that the world “is at a crossroads which, if not crossed properly, can throw us back to the dark days of bigotry, fanaticism and bloodshed.” He said India had allowed the coexistence of various religions “for thousands of years.”
At the end of the speech, which Mr. Modi delivered in English rather than his usual Hindi, he returned to the language he had used during his electoral campaign, which steered clear of religious ideology. “I have a vision of a modern India,” he said. “I have embarked on a huge mission to convert that vision into reality. My mantra is development.”
Rajiv Tuli, a spokesman for the Delhi branch of the R.S.S., said he believed that Mr. Modi had issued a warning, but that it was not aimed at Hindu groups but rather at Christian and Muslim proselytizers “who indulge in conversion by force, by allurement.”
Mr. Tuli denied that right-wing campaigners had played a role in the church vandalism, saying, “It has been proven by the investigative agencies that it has nothing to do with the majority communities.”
But others said they hoped that the speech indicated that Mr. Modi was willing to distance himself from right-wing activists.
“What can I say? Thank God, finally,” said Yogendra Yadav, a senior strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party, which won 67 of Delhi’s 70 assembly seats in last week’s elections. He said the magnitude of the loss must have served as a signal to Mr. Modi.
“He is a consummate political player,” Mr. Yadav said. “He had positioned himself as being an aggressive pro-Hindu person, and he did not want to dilute his image. I guess he has now realized he needed to move closer to the median.”
Nida Najar contributed reporting.

@ The New York Times