Old Time Religion

Are India’s Christians and Muslims Forced to Become Hindus?

PM Modi’s crucial development agenda is being disrupted by his own Hindu nationalist backers campaigning to “re-convert” Christians and Muslims to the ancient faith.

01.29.15 1:00 AM ET

MUMBAI — As U.S. President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to India came to a close on Tuesday, he emphasized the importance of religious toleration, opining that India will be a great success “so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.”

His comments have been widely interpreted, since, as a diplomatic reference to the partisan divide in parliament summed up by a single phrase, “ghar wapsi,” that might otherwise be associated with warm tidings. It means “homecomings.” And it is the name of a very ambitious Hindu nationalist campaign.

The goal of ghar wapsi is to bring members of minority religious groups—mostly Muslims and Christians—“back to Hinduism, back to their original home,” says Dharm Narayan Sharma, central secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of India’s largest Hindu nationalist organizations. And he makes no apologies. “This is the work of India,” he told me.

The percentages certainly are with the Hindus, but the raw numbers spell potentially huge problems. Hindus make up roughly 81 percent of India’s 1.24 billion people, while, again, very roughly, 13 percent (161 million) are Muslim, and 2.3 percent (28.5 million) are Christians; 1.8 percent (22.3 million) are Sikhs and millions identify with other religions groups.

Hindu nationalist outfits like the VHP, armed with claims that Indian Muslims and Christians are descendants of Hindu forbears who were tricked or forced into converting in the past, have stirred controversy in recent months by holding several large “re-conversion” ceremonies across the country.

“We don’t believe in conversion,” Sharma stipulates. “It is re-conversion. We are just aiming to bring them back home.”

But amid allegations that many impoverished minorities have been coaxed or coerced into such “re-conversion ceremonies” with promises of monetary compensation, or preferential access to state welfare programs, it’s perhaps no wonder that these “homecomings” have been the subject of suspicion rather than praise.

Nine months ago the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, put issues of religious tension in India back in the international spot-light. Modi’s tempestuous past includes a stint as chief minister of the State of Gujarat, where communal riots in 2002 claimed the lives of over a thousand people, mostly Muslims. But despite what many of his critics consider a sordid record on religious harmony, his promises of a platform geared towards economic development for all ultimately paid dividends as he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were swept into power last May.

Since then, however, the re-conversion furor has emerged as an obstacle to his development agenda, because it provokes such passions that it helps unite opposition against him.

In one particularly high profile incident, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the head of a local right-wing Hindu organization announced that his group’s goal is to “free” India of Muslims and Christians in the next five years.

“Issuing these sorts of threats, and using these methods, is both un-Hindu and un-Islamic,” said Ejaz Ahmad Aslam, All India secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, one of India’s leading Muslim political parties. The Jamaat is among those groups demanding that the prime minister make his stance on the matter clear.

“It is a fundamental right to preach and propagate your religion,” Aslam told me, “but many of these groups are indulging in coercive methods. The PM must speak on this issue. He is the leader of the country. Why has he not spoken out against rabble rousers who say things like they will ‘finish Islam and Christianity’?”

Members of the political opposition like Priyanka Chaturvedi, national spokesperson for the Congress Party, are even more forthcoming in their criticisms. “The fact is that the VHP, and other groups of this nature were actively involved in getting the BJP to power,” she says. “Now they all believe they are active stakeholders in this government.”

She isn’t alone in her suspicions that the government is more cozy with the idea of “homecomings” than it is admitting. Mohan Guruswamy, a well known political analyst, traces Modi’s silence on the matter to his Hindu nationalist roots, saying, “As a believer in Hindu nationalism, Modi is committed to the goal of establishing India as a Hindu state. It has been on his and other groups’ agendas for a long time.”

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiya Naidu insists neither the government, nor the BJP, are involved in re-conversions. BJP national spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao tells me, “The whole issue came up because of some stray incidents of Muslims being converted to Hinduism.” He says, “The opposition has been protesting these so-called forced conversions, but they happily welcome conversions to other religions away from Hinduism, and do not take issue with coercion used in that regard. We are against double standards.” Indeed, tight-wing Hindu groups have long complained about the role of Christian missionaries, and Muslim proselytizers.

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There’s also an element of political opportunism. “This is not a new issue,” said Dipankar Gupta, a noted sociologist. “This re-conversion agenda has been held by right-wing Hindu groups since the 1920s. These elements thrive off of attention, and highlighting them as a major threat is more about political grandstanding. The opposition is going after low-hanging fruit in this case, they should be focusing on more substantive issues like development.”

In a recent interview with NDTV, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley claimed headlines that should be devoted to development are being “hijacked” by the re-conversion issue. His solution, in essence, would be new legislation. “In principle, if we bring about a law then conversions could happen, but in a more regulated manner,” said Rao. “There have been incidents of conversions happening in a stealthy manner. This would stop if you had a law to regulate the process.”

But politicians are the ones who make the laws, and Ashis Nandy, a noted sociologist and political psychologist, says “the idea of regulating such a process will undoubtedly open it up to influence from political groups and other interests.”

It’s important to note that 5 Indian states already have laws on the books that subject the process of religious conversion to state oversight. In Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat, those undergoing a religious conversion are subjected to a litany of bureaucratic measures that in many cases place a burden of proof upon the subjects to show that they are not being forced to change their faith.

Measures such as these might seem feasible in theory, warns Nandy, but the already burdensome nature of Indian bureaucracy means that several such cases simply end up being subjected to extraordinary delays in processing. “Bringing the state into such matters opens doors for corruption in many ways,” Nandy explained. “Taking such laws to the national level will ensure that the logjam does not end.”

Despite the many efforts at clarification by government officials, Modi’s decision to stay mum on the issue continues to serve as a sign to many of his unwillingness to confront openly the most divisive elements of his Hindu right-wing base.

“The idea of reviving Hindu nationalism has always been a part of the BJP program,” says  Nandy. “Modi can’t be seen to disown it openly, as it would cause him to lose a small but influential section of his base, for whom Hindu nationalism and idea of re-conversion are integral.” The problem, says Nandy, is that “once the djinni is out of the box, it’s difficult to put him back in.”

When I asked Sharma what the VHP’s response was to the government’s claims that it does not support or advocate the re-conversion programs, his explanation was simple: “The job of those in parliament is to make the law, so they know about the law” he said. “We know about other things, and our intention is to bring people back to Hinduism.”