Hindu fundamentalists in India carry out controversial group conversions with alleged support of ruling party

Christians in New Delhi protest forced conversion and violent attacks from Hindu groups. (Photo credit: Bismillah Geelani)

Political and religious tensions are rising in India after some Hindu fundamentalist groups launched a drive to convert Muslims and Christians. The issue has led to protests both on the streets and in the Parliament with opposition parties accusing the government of supporting the Hindu fundamentalist groups.

Hinduism is India’s dominant religion while the followers of Islam and Christianity make up 14 percent and 2.3 percent of the total population respectively. The two minority groups say they have come under frequent attacks by Hindu groups since the Hindu nationalist politicians came into power earlier this year with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.

Modi was previously the Chief Minister – the top official – of the Western state of Gujarat and many still accuse him of facilitating the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in the state that left nearly 2000 Muslims dead. Bismillah Geelani has the story.

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Surrounded by more than 200 men, women and children, a Hindu priest carries out a purification ritual in Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Most of the people in the gathering are Muslims. Organizers of the conversion ceremony call it “Ghar Wapsi” or a home-coming.

Ajju Chauhan is a member of the Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Da says the ancestors of “all these people were Hindus and they were forcibly converted to Islam decades ago. But they know where they belong and they realize that it is in the Hindu faith where their interests are better served.”

Muneera Begum attended the ceremony and offers a different version of the story. The 30-year-old said event organizers “came to us saying that the Modi government has started a new program for poor people and to be eligible for its benefits, we needed new identity cards and ration cards. They offered support in getting the documents. Then one day they set up a stage here and told us that some leaders and journalists are coming to meet us, they said they will snap our pictures for the documents.  They asked us to attend the program dressed up in Muslim attire, men with skull caps and women in burqas, but when we got there they made us do all these things.”

Meneera Begum works as a waste picker as do other participants of the conversion event. She insists she hasn’t changed her religion and remains a Muslim: “We did not resist them when they made us worship as Hindus at the event because we feared they would use violence but the next day our pictures were all over the newspapers and TV and everyone was saying that we have become Hindus.But I want to say that we are Muslims and even if we get poorer than we already are, we won’t become Hindu.  We have been duped and coerced.”

The event in Agra sparked massive protests from the Muslim community and led to an uproar in the Parliament as well. Lawmakers from opposition parties stalled proceedings in the house for several days, demanding a hearing on what they describe as forced conversions and other recent incidents of attacks on religious minorities.

Muslim leaders like Qasim Rasool Ilyas suspect the events are part of a plan by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – or BJP – to introduce a law on religious conversions aimed at preventing Hindus from leaving their religion. “This was staged and the reason behind it is to polarize people and create panic,” he said. “They want to create an atmosphere where people feel insecure about their religious identity and demand a ban on religious conversions. They are testing the waters to implement their agenda but it would be an attack on the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution.”

Religious conversions have always been a highly controversial issue in India. Hinduism is India’s dominant religion and includes around 80 percent of the country’s population.

Hindu groups accuse Muslims and Christians of enticing poor and low-caste Hindus away from their ancestral faith and often respond with violence. But the so-called “homecoming” programs like the one organized in Agra are a recent phenomenon which the community leaders say have sharply increased since the BJP took power earlier this year.

John Dayal, General Secretary of the All India Christian Council, says the conversion drive is “the latest incident in a chain of events that have been happening for some time and have speeded up after the coming into government of Mr. Narendra Modi.” He adds Hindu extremist groups share the ideology of the BJP’s parent organization, the Rastriya Swayam Sewak Sangh or RSS, and enjoy the tacit approval of the ruling establishment.

The public and political outcry over the conversions hasn’t deterred the Hindu groups. They have now announced plans to hold similar events, particularly in the most populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The groups say India will be free of Muslims and Christians by the end of the decade.

“We are just protecting our community,” says Rajeshwar Singh, a leader with the Hindu group Dharam Samaj Jagran Samiti. “We are not bothered by anyone who was previously a Hindu, but we will bring back everyone who converted from Hindu society.  They are prisoners of war in our war with Islam and Christianity and it is our duty to reclaim them.”

Some lawmakers from the ruling BJP have voiced support for these events and have even agreed to attend them. But the local government in Uttar Pradesh says they won’t allow conversion ceremonies to take place.

Hindu hardliners have threatened to take to the streets if any attempt is made to stop them.

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