NEW DELHI - A prominent right-wing Hindu group in India warned Muslims and Christians on Thursday not to join in a lively Hindu religious festival this month, in the latest bid by activists to step up segregation in the multi-faith country.
Emboldened by the May election victory of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hardliners in his party and affiliated Hindu groups have been stirring up sentiment against India's religious minorities in recent months.
“We are warning Muslims and Christians that they should stay away from all our festivals. The Navratri festival is for Hindus only,” Surendra Jain, spokesman for a Hindu group called the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP], told Reuters.
The annual, nine-night Navratri Hindu festival began Thursday. In many parts of the country it is marked by celebrations involving prayer, music and dance among men and women.
It is famous for being high-spirited, and Christians and Muslims are known to take part. They also take part in the Holi Hindu spring festival.
Hindu activists plan this year for the first time, however, to demand identity cards to keep non-Hindus out of festival venues. Usually in India, one can tell a person's religion by their name.
“Muslims and Christians do not pray to the Hindu mother goddess, so why should they dance and enjoy nightly feasts with us?” said Jain, accusing young Muslim men of taking part in the festival to tempt Hindu girls into converting to Islam.
Members of the VHP have in the past been accused of instigating communal violence, including riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was its chief minister.
At least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims.
The VHP is a radical member of a cluster of right-wing Hindu groups that includes Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi has distanced himself from the anti-Muslim views of some of his supporters.
In an interview with the CNN news channel last week, Modi praised the patriotism of India's Muslims and said they would not be tempted by Islamist groups such as al-Qaida.
Modi, who is observing a nine-day fast to mark Navratri, departed for the United States on Thursday, his first trip there since being denied a visa in 2005 over allegations of religious intolerance stemming from the 2002 riots.
In Modi's home state of Gujarat, a Muslim cleric this week called Navratri a “festival of demons.” He was arrested for his comments, and hit and pushed by a member of the public as he was detained.