The prime minister has spoken: “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions… We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.” Narendra Modi’s use of the future tense (“will not allow”, “will be”, “will act”) makes this a declaration of possibility, something that has been missing since May last year.

For the nine months Modi has been in office, he has been silent in the face of communal violence, forced conversions, calls for bolstering the Hindu population, church attacks, pronouncements that India is a Hindu nation, and the valorisation of Mahatma Gandhi’s killer – by people and groups related to the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Sangh Parivar. Last August, the BJP’s firebrand sadhu Adityanath opened the debate on communalism in the Lok Sabha from the government benches. The saffron-clad Adityanath, who routinely delivers hate speech targeting Muslims, stood up in our national parliament backed by cheering BJP MPs and called for Hindu unity against those he claimed were attacking Hindus.

A couple of days after this performance, in his discursive Independence Day speech, the prime minister suggested that the nation “experiment” with a “10-year moratorium” on caste and religion-linked violence. For a man who boasts decisiveness and certainty, this was a rather tentative suggestion, lacking resolve.

The price of silence

The prime minister’s silence was uncomfortably amplified when the visiting US President Barack Obama spoke in Delhi of diversity being the strength of his and our nations. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith,” he said and referred to India’s constitutional defence of the “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. From the man whom the prime minister had familiarly called “Barack”, this was an artful put down.

In the build-up to the assembly election in Delhi, one of the imponderables was how the incidents of communal violence in the city would impact the election result. There was a widespread belief that the BJP – whose affiliates were allegedly involved in these incidents – would be the gainer, as had been the case in the past. In his campaign speeches in Delhi, the prime minister said many things, but communal harmony found no mention. And it was not until the results came in on February 10 that the cost of the prime minister’s silence was fully understood. The Syro-Malabar church, at whose invitation Modi spoke on Tuesday, had invited him to a community celebration on February 2, in the last week of the Delhi campaign. The prime minister had declined and suggested Tuesday as the date acceptable to him.

In his speech on Tuesday the prime minister made a future promise and yet seemed unwilling to name the problem he was promising to deal with. He did not speak of communal violence as a major problem in India. He pledged to act strongly “in regard” to “violence against any religion”, but he prefaced that with the assertion that in the land of Buddha and Gandhi, “respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian”. He made a reference only to an entirely ahistoric ancient India as a multi-culti haven of religious acceptance, and spoke of division and hostility based on religion as a growing problem of the contemporary world. He said that the rest of the world was coming round to “the ancient Indian plea of mutual respect for all faiths”. This, he said, “shows that the rest of the world too is evolving along the lines of ancient India.”

So what do we make of this? Very little, until we see the government actually make good its promise. A first step would be acknowledging the problem at home.