Two successive statements by U.S. President Barack Obama within a span of nine days on the shrinking religious tolerance in India have created some flutter. In the first instance, as he wound up his India visit on January 27, Mr. Obamaunderscored the point that countries that are divided within along religious lines cannot progress; in the second one, on February 5, he said the acts of religious intolerance that are being reported in India would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi. Though the White House later said that the President’s remarks were not aimed at anyone in particular, they have embarrassed the Narendra Modi government. The Congress has seized the opportunity to attack the government for inaction in the face of the acts of intolerance, while hardline Hindutva groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have seen in Mr. Obama’s remarks a pattern of unwelcome interference. It is curious that Mr. Obama invoked two motifs that Mr. Modi has repeatedly claimed to have been guided by — first, the Constitution, and second, Gandhian ideals. It is also curious that Mr. Modi invokes Gandhi on issues ranging from cleanliness to diaspora concerns, but not when it comes to the question of religious harmony.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement — that “India’s huge cultural history of tolerance” cannot be altered by aberrations — is perfectly valid, but such well-meaning statements by themselves just would not do. The point of concern is that the tradition of tolerance that Mr. Jaitley — like most Indians — takes pride in, is being attacked and weakened. Liberties and values will have to be nurtured in order for them to be enduring. That is the reason why Mr. Modi’s silence on recurring reports of desecration of churches and intimidation of religious minorities by extremist groups has become a matter of concern, as noticed also by the outside world, and reflected in a recent editorial in The New York Times. More troubling is the fact that these acts are being committed by groups that belong to the larger ideological universe that Mr. Modi has been associated with. This is not to overlook violence promoted in the name of other faiths, but the question here is about the links of intolerance to political power that controls the state. Mr. Modi has told his party colleagues that he does not want to be distracted from his economic agenda by contentious issues. Tolerance, though essential for growth, cannot be reduced to an instrumentality of growth, and the amiable coexistence of diverse religious and cultural traditions is an end in itself. The Indian Constitution enshrines a set of fundamental freedoms and rights. The government of the day has a constitutional duty to uphold these rights and freedoms. A government should not only be fair but also be seen to be so, and needs to be outspoken in the defence of constitutional values.