NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared he would act strongly against groups that incite religious hatred, breaking his silence on the issue about a week after his party got clobbered in a Delhi state election.
"My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly," Mr Modi said in a speech in New Delhi on Tuesday celebrating the canonisation of two Indian Catholics to sainthood. "Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions."
Mr Modi had come under pressure from Christian leaders to speak up for religious freedom following a recent rise in attacks on Catholic churches in Delhi. His Hindu-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party won only three of 70 seats in the capital last week, its first electoral setback since Mr Modi took power.
The statement, his strongest to date on religious freedom, may smooth passage of legislation in a parliamentary session starting later this month. Opposition lawmakers in the Upper House, where Mr Modi's party lacks a majority, used reports of forced religious conversions to delay votes on key bills.
"My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence," Mr Modi said in the speech, reminding his audience that religious freedom is enshrined in India's secular Constitution.
Mr Modi rose within the BJP's ranks after starting his career as a volunteer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party's Hindu nationalist ideological mentor. As chief minister of western Gujarat state, he was criticised for his handling of religious riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 people and prompted a US visa ban on him for years. He had denied wrongdoing.
"We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext, and I strongly condemn such violence," Modi said. "My government will act strongly in this regard."
Just last month, US President Barack Obama told an audience in New Delhi that India would succeed so long as it doesn't splinter along religious lines.
Of India's 1.2 billion people, Hindus make up about 80 per cent of the population. Muslims comprise 13 per cent and Christians account for less than 3 per cent, according to the 2001 census. The religion-related results of the 2011 census haven't been made public due to sensitivities over the issue.
Mr Modi said his focus was on development - ensuring families have access to food, jobs, education houses, toilets and electricity.
"We can achieve this through unity," Mr Modi said. "Division weakens us."