German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has made a strong appeal for protecting religious tolerance and defending free speech, warning that democracy would “dry out” if freedoms were constrained by ideology.
The remarks came during a speech, titled Germany and India – Ideas and Perspectives, delivered at Delhi University on Friday. Steinmeier is on a five-day visit to India which began on Thursday.
“When freedom is constrained by ideology, researchers are threatened and harassed based on their political beliefs, then soon democracy will dry out,” said Steinmeier during his address, attended mainly by students, scholars and teachers from Delhi University.
A vocal advocate of religious freedom back home, Steinemier remarked in his speech that religious communities deserved special attention.
“We should stand up for religious tolerance—rather than excluding those we perceive as different. We are all entitled to our own opinions and our religious beliefs. That’s why religious communities deserve special protection,” the visiting German leader said.
He said that he was drawing on his recent experience in Germany’s politics, where the ruling coalition of Angela Merkel is under criticism from supporters of a far-right party, the AfD, for its immigration policies. Earlier this week, Steinmeier had remarked that “Islam is now a part of Germany,” as it was home to over four million Muslims.
“I know these issues from our debates back home in Germany, where public discourse has become rougher and where old certainties are increasingly being called into question,” said in his on DU’s North Campus.
He said that the new German government was putting “integration at the heart of its political agenda.”
Steinmeier said that freedom of press must be defended and uncomfortable truth must not be discredited as fake news.
“When reporters in many countries around the world refrain from reporting for fear, or reprisals, when public debate is discouraged to the extent that criticism becomes dangerous, then it is time to speak up,” said Steinmeier, who is on his first visit to India after being elected as President last year.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier: “We should stand up for religious tolerance—rather than excluding those we perceive as different. We are all entitled to our own opinions and our religious beliefs. That’s why religious communities deserve special protection”
Steinmeier said that changing international dynamics in form of increasing protectionism had created hurdles for economic growth, which needed to be addressed.
“These are difficult questions. But we need to find convincing answers if we want our societies to prosper and if we want to aim for a happy and harmonious human existence, as Prime Minister Modi put it in his recent Davos speech,” he said.
He expressed that Germany and India’s democracies would rise up to the challenge of finding solutions. The President said, “I am confident that India and Germany’s systems will rise to this task because they’re built to adapt to these changes.”
“Democracy’s greatest strength, to my mind, is its ability to uncover and to correct its own weaknesses. Democracy has a unique power to self-correct and to deal with new challenges,” Steinmeier said.
“I believe it’s worth our hard work to preserve that power, to maintain this freedom and openness. We need these qualities to overcome the challenges of our time,” he added.
During his address, the leader offered India the German expertise and political power to ensure freedom of navigation in Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes, which he said were important for Germany’s “stability and prosperity.”
“It is encouraging to see how the idea of undisturbed navigation has recently gained additional traction, especially in this region,” he said, adding that “a proposed code of conduct based on United Nations conventions on sea deserves special attention.”
Steinmeier also called for an early conclusion of the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), mentioning that nearly 1,800 German companies had invested $10 billion in India since 2000, which had resulted in creation of over 400,000 jobs. Germany is India’s largest trading partner in the EU, with bilateral trade in 2016-17 amounting to $18.3 billion.
“I am certain that such an agreement can lend new momentum to bilateral economic relations, ” Steinmeier said.