Sunday, 01 March 2015 17:06 GFP Columnist - R.L. Francis
Guest Author Joseph Gathia

By securing  release of Catholic  Christian  priest from Taliban in  Afghanistan within a week of giving assurances that his government will protect minorities and  is committed to the freedom of religion,   the Modi government has given signal of a new approach to protect minorities  in India. Indian Jesuit priest Father Alexis Prem Kumar was kidnapped from the main area in Afghanistan on  June 2, 2014 while on visit to a schools run for refugees. Father Alexis has thanked the Modi government for ensuring his freedom. “PM Modi saved me,” Father Alexis said.

Father Alexis, who hails from Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district had served as country director of international NGO Jesuit Refugee Service in Afghanistan for four years before he was abducted on June 2, 2014 during visits to schools run for refugees in Herat area of Afghanistan. In the past Indian kidnapped by the Taliban or Islamic militant groups have been killed. After Father Alexis was released and taken to Kandahar and later to Kabul, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoken to him, inquiring about his condition, and wishing him well. Modi later spoke to his family members in Chennai.

Modi tweeted, "Delighted at securing the release of Indian Jesuit priest Father Alexis Prem Kumar from captivity in Afghanistan. Have spoken to Father Alexis Prem Kumar. Informed happy family of Father Alexis Prem Kumar of his safe return after 8 months in captivity."The “special operation,” which saw agencies going the whole hog to secure the Jesuit priest came at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

It is a signal to the minorities that   Modi government cares for them too. Only last week, Modi had, while addressing a function of elevation to two Indians to sainthood by the Vatican (Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia), sought to allay the concerns of the Christian community over the recent attacks on churches and schools in the Capital. "My government will not allow any religious group belonging to the majority or minority to incite hatred against any group," he had said in a comment welcomed by the community leaders.

The speech was seen as an attempt by the Prime Minister to combat the perception that his government was beholden to hard line Hindutava groups, or was favourably tilted towards them. In his speech Modi asserted ,“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,” Modi asserted as the gathering erupted in thundering applause. He said, ``we consider the freedom to have, to retain, and to adopt, a religion or belief is a personal choice of a citizen.” Modi's this statement is applicable to both the Hindu and Christian organisations not to indulge in forceful conversion or re-conversion.

Asserting that his “mantra” is development that takes everyone along, he appealed to all religious groups to act with “restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation which is manifestes in our Constitution and is in line with the Hague Declaration.”mportance of the Speech, Minorities in general and Christian community in India particular welcomed the assurances given by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech. In fact, Mod’s speech has several implications.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to all minority communities across the country on assuring them that ``his government would stand by individual’s right to freedom of faith.’’Indirectly referring to the series of attacks and vandalism at Covent school and violent assaults that gained the world’s attention, the Prime Minister  Modi assured stern action against lawbreakers and punishment. For the first time in a thought provoking wide-ranging speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi  spoke  openly on  sensitive issue  of religious freedom,  and underlines India’s   international commitment to religious freedom. The speech indicates that behind the brusque ways and unyielding view of India’s enigmatic leader there is an inner urge to change India.

The speech also served to outline goals Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) plan to undertake in the future. Party insiders said Modi's public pledge of take firm action against perpetrators of religious attacks is the strongest message sent to fringe elements. Until date, he has been privately warning the BJP MPs and others not to make controversial statements that could jeopardise his agenda of economic reform.

Overall, while the speech was well received, it gives critics an opportunity to question his performance in the months to come as prime minister and his government’s failure to protect minority and ensure freedom of religion.

(By Joseph Gathia, The author is a Christian activist.)

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