Indian Prime Minister Modi has received praise at home and abroad for a speech he gave on February 17 that took a firm stand against religious persecution and violence and pledged equal treatment for all religions in India. His remarks were made to an audience of 1,200 Christians who had gathered to mark the canonization of two Catholic figures.

The mainline Indian daily, The Hindu, ran an editorial on Tuesday highlighting the importance of Modi’s speech, which affirmed the sanctity of the Indian constitution and its promise of a secular and democratic India guaranteeing the rights of citizens to freely practice the religion of their choice. The editorial encouraged Modi to continue to speak out against controversial statements by Hindu hardliners or risk the credibility of his government.

President Obama, who had raised the issue of religious freedom during a recent visit to India, and again at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, in early February, also welcomed Modi’s speech.

The Indian prime minister’s remarks come in the wake of a series of church desecrations in New Delhi and controversial statements by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders asserting Hinduism’s dominance. Eighty percent of Indians are Hindu, while around 15 percent are Muslim, and most of the remainder are Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists.

Indian Cabinet Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti caused controversy in early December when she differentiated between Ramzadon (progeny of the Hindu god Ram) and Haramzadon (illegitimate offspring). According to Hudson Institute’s South Asia expert, Aparna Pande, Minister Jyoti was referring to a pamphlet published in the 1920s by Hindutva (Hindu cultural dominance) ideologue, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who argued that only those who followed religions that recognized India as the holy land (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists) could be considered genuine Indian citizens.

Another issue that has raised concern among India’s religious minorities is the increased number of mass conversion ceremonies aimed at converting Christians and Muslims to Hinduism since the BJP took power last May. Hardline Hindu nationalists claim that non-Hindus (especially within tribal communities in northeast India) have been tricked or induced to convert from Hinduism and thus need to be brought back into the fold. The conversion ceremonies are referred to as Ghar Vapsi (homecomings).

Last December, the Indian parliament was sidetracked for several days following news of a BJP leader’s plan to host a mass conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism on Christmas Day. The planned ceremony sparked an enormous backlash among Indian opposition politicians, who demanded Modi make a statement on the issue. Eventually, the group organizing the event agreed to cancel it.

I noted in an opinion piece that ran in Newsweek in early February that previous BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken steps to rein in hardline Hindu elements when he led the government from 1998–2004.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Modi’s February 17 speech signals that he also is willing to speak up in defense of religious freedom in India and to keep in check those who are pushing a hardline agenda that seeks to divide the country along religious lines.