Exactly a month ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke a silence in a speech to a gathering of Christian leaders in the national capital. “We believe there is truth in every religion,” the PM said. His government would ensure “complete freedom of faith,” he said, and would “not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly”. On Tuesday, as the PM expressed concern and sought immediate reports on the vandalisation of an under-construction church in Kaimri village in Haryana and the rape of a 71-year-old nun in Nadia district of West Bengal, it seemed sadly evident that minority anxieties had once again been stoked. A month later, the task of the prime minister and his government — of speaking to these insecurities and assuaging them — has only grown more urgent.
In these columns, on Monday, former Punjab DGP Julio Ribeiro, who helped this nation win the battle against terrorism in the state, wrote movingly about being part of a community that feels under siege, on a “hit list”, in its own country. “Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger… I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra”. He wrote of the “systematic targeting of a small and peaceful community”, of “extremists” who were “emboldened beyond permissible limits by an atmosphere of hate and distrust”, and campaigns such as “ghar wapsi”, attacks on Christian churches and schools in the nation’s capital, and the declaration of Christmas as “Good Governance Day”. In such an atmosphere, the same narrative of fear and anxiety seems to join the attack on the Haryana church to the crime perpetrated in West Bengal. In this climate, moreover, even though law and order is a state subject and it is the responsibility of the Manohar Lal Khattar and Mamata Banerjee governments to ensure that the guilty are quickly brought to book, the onus is also on the Modi government.
Ever since it took over last year in May, after a comprehensive victory on the promise of change, the Modi government has seemed sincere in many of its efforts to reinvigorate the India story that was seen to be sagging for several reasons, including a political Centre that seemed to have lost its energy and the plot. But an essential part of the India story is made up of the space and respect it accords to its minorities. At a time when a minority community is feeling under siege, this government and its institutions must honour and underline that reality and promise — they are bound by the Constitution to do so.