Speaking Out for Communal Tolerance and Secularism

03/01/2015 10:03 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2015

It's a crucial moment in India's pell-mell political evolution.

Against a backdrop of recent violence against churches, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped up to reassure the public that his government was not encouraging right wing Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) groups to indulge in physical and verbal attacks on religious minorities in India. He made a valiant effort to reassure minorities that his government was not supporting groups which indulge in violent and verbal attacks on minorities - although they are clearly embedded within his BJP governing party. He promised religious minorities that action would be taken against right wing provocators of violence. The Prime Minister recently spoke at the Catholic Syro-Malabar church in New Delhi where churches have been under attack recently.

"Everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence," said Modi sending a clear message to the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar and its Ghar Wapsi (come home) campaign which seeks to convert Christians and Muslims into Hindus on the grounds that centuries ago that was their faith.

"The principles of equal respect for all faiths and secularism have been fundamental components parts of the Indian ethos. It is integral to the constitution of India." The Prime Minister said.

"The world is at a crossroads, which if not crossed properly, can throw us back to the Dark Ages," Modi said at Vigyan Bhawan. "I have a vision for a modern India. My mantra is development. Sabka saath, sabbka vikas (harmony with all, development for all)," he said, referring to BJP's per slogan in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections last year.

Modi's statements also came against a backdrop of attacks on churches and a Christian school in the national capital in the last few months, which even force US President Barack Obama to make the controversial statement that Gandhi would have been shocked at a few things happening in India today.

Mr. Modi's moves were long overdue. He had held off meetings with distraught church leaders for six months - despite the violence perpetrated against them. Modi has an internal challenge: He is sending mixed signals. People at the upper echelons of government are embracing India's traditional secular lens, while those in the middle and lower rungs of the administration tested the waters with "virulent remarks." There is a duel between the responsible elements of the BJP party and its broad governing plus the political imperatives that need to appease its core Hindutva right wing faction.

But the bedrock of India's constitution is secularism - which in the Indian context means not no-religion, but all religions. This includes protecting the right of all individuals to freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion under Article 25: Secularism is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Mr Modi is way too smart to fall into this trap.

But if he wasn't, Modi's had a little help from his friends. First, a number of the American members of the Indian diaspora who were so helpful in Modi's election launched a letter writing campaign warming him that he needed to speak out forcefully for communal peace.

This campaign bore fruit in President Obama's direct mentioning of human rights issues at the end of his trip to India, and in comments like this from the New York Times: "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 editorial 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.

Modi vs. Kejriwal, the New Dynamic

Most decisive, however, were the voters of the capital, Delhi. In a drenching loss of face for Prime Minister Narendar Modi, his Bharatya Janaty Party was soundly trounced by the nascent Aam Aadmi, the People's Party (AAP), setting up a stunning challenge to the Prime Minister's Bharatya Janata party in parliament. Suddenly India has not one, but two new faces in politics. In the Delhi polls, a state Modi swept nine months ago, AAP got 67 out of 70 seats - an unprecedented landslide.

Shiv Visvanathan, a professor of the Jindal School of Public Policy, suggests that "AAP and BJP should not be seen as empirical parties, but as imaginations.... or a battle of competing hypotheses.....AAP is not a conventional party of diversities linked by a new style of politics... The party has to be a dialogue, a pollination of differences. If it expands mechanically, it will be a disappointment. The AAP is a collection of dialects, showing how politics speaks different issues in different places."

Visvanathan, clearly entranced by Kejriwal the newcomer, writes that Modi "needs to be vitaminised with additional news even as he sounds stale and repetitive... a designer creation, a soldier in perpetual uniform who dons roles, masks, agendas and attributes more to a project than a person."

Think of the newly reincarnated Mr Modi vs Mr. Kejriwal, the leader of the newly established Aam Aadmi Party :Prime Minister Modi wore an over the top suit made to order which had his name embroidered into it which sold for 43.1 million rupees ($693,234). Mr. Kejriwal, in contrast sports a Monte Carlo sweater, a middle class man's security blanket. This undoubtedly endears him to his constituency and "signals a style of dissent," according to Mr. Visvanathan. Mr Kejriwal is "the other" and his success comes from being the "other" and not a native of Lutyen's aristocratic Delhi. The newcomer and change agent - is not Oxford educated but rather folklore oriented. Modi, the very pukka (proper) prime minister represents seriousness and Mr Kejriwal shows care and concern. Two different modes - each complements the other. They came to power because "change" was the mandate of the people. Now we hope this duet succeeds and paves the way for an India that values, supports and advances its citizens.

Among a slew of critical issues in India, secularism is what must be preserved above all. It is at the very core of India's multi faith based society. For the moment, secularism seems like a fragile value but it must be preserved and protected - if India is to continue to be the India we know, care about and value. Chipping away at secularism is not an option for an Indians who value and embrace the co-existence of multiple faiths. A secular India has to be cherished, valued and preserved at all costs if we want to avoid bloodshed and mayhem.