The Obama visit and the Delhi verdict seem to have had some pleasant side-effects. President Obama’s sermons on religious tolerance have not been dismissed as unwarranted or treated as interference by the Modi government. These have, in fact, been taken seriously. On Tuesday Prime Minister Modi chose to speak out at a Christian function on virtues of religious freedom, guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution to which President Obama referred with telling effect. This is quite a climb down for a man who had stubbornly refused to condemn the 2002 massacre that happened when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Two days after the Delhi verdict, which seems to have left Modi a changed man, the Prime Minister picked up the phone to launch cricket diplomacy, resuming the Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan. In another unusual step he summoned the Delhi Police Commissioner to order a crackdown on those attacking Christian institutions in Delhi. In the usual course the Prime Minister should have acted through the Home Minister or sought the Home Minister’s, or through him, the Delhi Police Commissioner’s explanation for police inaction on the repeated attacks on churches – six in three months in Delhi – unless these were unofficially sanctioned for possible electoral gains. By calling the Police Commissioner, Modi perhaps wanted to send the signal to his critics that he was no longer a quiet spectator to the ugly goings-on.
One hopes the Delhi outcome has taught the BJP leadership the importance of plurality in the Indian society. A serious introspection may drive the party to keep in check the hate-mongers in the larger Sangh Parivar. Whether the BJP has learnt any lessons in religious tolerance will be tested during the coming Bihar and UP elections in which communal flare-ups and caste divisions are often used for political advantage. Modi’s word to protect the minorities, welcome as it is, will not be enough unless followed by action on the ground. Any one engaging in or inciting communal hatred, vandalism and violence – regardless of his position, religion and party – must be booked immediately and brought to justice.