No, you can't deny religious freedom: The Statesman

A Sadhu, or holy man, decorating his face at the Pashupati Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, during the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri, on March 7.
A Sadhu, or holy man, decorating his face at the Pashupati Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, during the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri, on March 7. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on Mar 6, the paper says it may be possible to understand why the Modi government has denied visas to members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, but questions if it is the right thing to do.

Religious freedom is a constitutional freedom; it is an irreplaceable democratic facet of a liberal society.

Without freedom to pursue different ways of worship there is always a risk of falling into majoritarian totalitarianism, a risk that has perceptibly been exacerbated in recent times.

In a narrow, technical sense it may be easy to understand why the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has denied visas to members of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

In a larger perspective, the decision is inexplicable.

USCIRF chairman Robert George has said: "As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit."

That the USCIRF has been permitted visits in countries and regions with dubious human rights record on religious freedom like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and China may not be immediately germane to New Delhi's decision.

But India's economic interests are strategically tied to those of the United States, hence denying a government body an opportunity to share its thoughts on religious freedom, even if it is suspected to be on a malevolent fishing expedition in foreign waters, is confounding.

Suffice it is to register that New Delhi seems to be confused on where it stands on freedom of religion, and uses constitutional notions of such freedom in ways that are politically expedient.

As a secular democracy, India has no reason to find such a visit objectionable.

Religious freedom is constantly under threat both from religious extremists and from the proponents of a Huntingtonian worldview who see unfolding events as a clash of civilisations.

If religious and secular bodies - even if some of them seem meddlesome - want to interact, they should be allowed to do so.

The present dispensation already faces a charge of divisiveness, and such decisions only add weight to this accusation.

Many Americans have a strong political sense of religious freedom. In the last decade India lost some vital strategic influence with these sections that the Vajpayee government had assiduously built.

While religious chauvinism might prove beneficial in an election, it has no place either in India's constitutional scheme or in the democratic arrangement India wants to present to the world.

Had 19th-century Americans followed Mr Modi's reasoning, his idol, Swami Vivekananda, might not have made it to Chicago.

The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.