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Religious divisions in India: a glitch in the relationship with the United States

HOST INTRO: In January, Barack Obama was the first American president to be invited to India for Republic Day. That’s the national holiday that celebrates the founding of the Indian Constitution. The United States and India have developed economic bonds. But there is one potential glitch in the Indo-American relationship: recent attacks on Christian churches in India.

Barack Obama called for tolerance during a speech in Delhi.

OBAMA: India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.

These comments raised questions about religious tensions in India being a potential obstacle for its relationship with the United States. India is home to many religions, and people in the country are questioning the Prime Minister’s commitment to religious tolerance.

Gregoire Molle reports from India.


Eighty percent of Indians are born into Hinduism. That doesn’t leave much space for the many other religions that exist in India. A few weeks after President Obama’s trip to India, Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, delivered a speech, in English. This was in Delhi, during an event organized by Christian groups.

MODI: We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. [Applause]

Religion is a weak spot in Modi’s political record. In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, more than a thousand people died in riots that opposed Muslims and Hindus. In 2005, the American authorities denied Modi the right to travel to the United States. They considered him responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.

Now, Modi is the Prime Minister of this massive country that is India. And he has to deal with religious tensions on a much bigger scale.

Several Christian churches have been attacked in Delhi in the past four months. More dramatically, a group of men broke into a convent and raped a 71-year-old men, two weeks ago. This incident happened in West Bengal, in the East part of India. But the emotional reaction reached way beyond. More than twelve hundred miles away, people took to the streets in protest.

[AMBI SOUND: People shouting]

Last Friday, about 800 people gathered in Gujarat. Posters are reading: “Enough is enough,” and “Stop the attacks on women, minorities.”

[AMBI SOUND: Woman shouting in Gujarati]

“Justice should be there,” the woman on the stage shouts in Hindi. She says that can be punished for killing cows, which are considered sacred in Hinduism. Then she asks: what punishment is given to rapists in India?

[Crowd claps]

Bishop Silvans Christian says the Indian government needs to take action.

CHRISTIAN: Enough is enough, let everyone have the right to live joyfully and peacefully, let the lord lead us to have a wonderful, joyful and blessed life. And let our leaders of our nation should get this reason and mission.

One political party in India is very vocal about its own secularism. The Aam Admi Party, or AAP, opposes Modi’s BJP. AAP is still quite small politically, and it surprised a lot of people when it won the elections in the state of Delhi last month. The AAP won 67 seats out of 70 in the Delhi Assembly, so it’s now a credible challenger to the BJP, at least at the state level. Kapil Bhardwaj is a volunteer at the AAP. He doesn’t think Modi is serious about improving the religious situation in India.

BHARDWAJ: Modi is just always making these tall [sic] statements but doesn’t implement any policies as such which will ensure that people do feel freedom about their religion.

Bhardwaj says that when Modi was campaigning, he tried and mobilize Hindu voters by making bold statements promoting Hinduism as the true Indian religion. Now that he has been elected, Modi is trying to gather the whole nation around him, but Bhardwaj is not convinced.

BHARDWAJ: They’ve always played the caste and the religion card, and they’ve always flared emotions based on their electoral benefits.

People from the BJP deny this. Anil Kumar Mittal is the coordinator of Delhi’s state bureau for the BJP. Mittal says that Modi has made it clear in speeches that he was the Prime Minister of all Indians.

MITTAL: He proves that India is one, that India has diversity in religions, India has diversity in lifestyles, but India is one.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise institute, a conservative think tank. His work focuses on India and Pakistan.

Dhume says that India and the Unites States share a lot of economic and political interests. So, the religious tensions in India? That’s not crucial to the trading relationship between the two countries.

DHUME: As long as there is no feeling that something fundamental is changing in India, I think that this could be perhaps an irritant, but I really don’t think that this is gonna get in the way of a much deeper relationship between the two countries.

By 2025, the two countries have as a target to increase trade exchanges, 5 times the current amount.

Gregoire Molle, Columbia Radio News.


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