NEW DELHI - Hard-line Hindu extremist groups in India have drawn controversy over a drive to convert Christians, posing a challenge to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. Muslim and Christian groups say there is an increasing level of religious repression in India, and are hoping President Barack Obama raises the issue during his upcoming visit to India.
Activists created an online petition on the White House website earlier this month, urging Obama to ask Modi to intervene to “preserve and promote the religious freedom” of minorities and raise concerns about reports of violence against Christians.
About 80 percent of Indians identify themselves as Hindu, but about 15 percent of the population are Muslim, with fewer Christians and other religious minorities. Hindu nationalists believe that over the decades, Muslims and Christians have converted many Hindus to their own faiths, and some Hindu extremist groups are now trying to convert them back.
The White House petition has the backing of Indian Christian leaders who have joined with some Indian Muslims groups to highlight what they see as “repression” of the two religious minority communities by Hindu chauvinists and revivalists.
Dominic Emmanuel, director of New Delhi-based Sadbhavana Institute for Communication and Inter-religious Dialogue, said religious minorities are feeling threatened by the Hindu extremist groups.
“We have come in support of this petition-signing campaign for President Obama to put it firmly on record during his meeting with Mr. Modi, that a democracy like India cannot allow the repression of religious minorities - particularly the Muslims and the Christians,” Emmanuel said.
In recent months there have been a series of reports of mass “conversion ceremonies,” where groups of Muslims and Christians have been converted to Hinduism by right wing Hindu groups. Critics say the converts in many cases are misled as to the purpose of the ceremony, creating tensions among the religious communities.
In the past 15 years, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), a national Christian body, recorded more than 100 attacks against Christian communities in India each year.
According to EFI, 145 incidents of anti-Christian violence were registered across the country last year, including 40 attacks only in December.
In recent years there have also been cases of violence against Christian missionaries accused of forcibly converting people.
Manmohan Vaidya, spokesperson of the right wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), argued that churches have long tricked Hindus, specifically tribal groups, into changing their faith.
"The tribespeople who converted to Christianity were weak and ignorant. Either fraudulently or by using force or allurement they were converted. Those Christians have now grown strong and are aware of their origin. Now they are ready to reconnect to their cultural roots,” Vaidya said.
John Dayal, a former national president of the All India Catholic Union, called Hindu charges of forcible conversion baseless.
“The whole accusation that the Christians convert by force or fraud is itself a fraud. A Christian pastor works alone in an area which is entirely dominated by the Hindu community. The policemen are Hindu, the magistrate is a Hindu and the political leadership is Hindu,” Dayal said.
The Hindu conversion ceremonies are frequently referred to as Gharwapsi, or “home coming,” reflecting the belief that the participants are returning to their original faith. Opposition party leaders charge that they are robbing the minorities of their religious freedom that the country’s Constitution guarantees. They say Modi’s apparent reluctance to take a forceful stand on the issue threatens to trigger communal tensions in the country.
Protests by the opposition lawmakers landed the upper house of Parliament in an impasse for days, stalling action on key bills.
According to local media reports, the controversial tribal conversion by the Hindu extremist groups reportedly upset Modi so much that he took the issue to the RSS hierarchy.
In his meeting with RSS leaders Modi expressed disappointment that his agenda of different developmental programs in the country was being hampered by the Gharwapsi-related tensions.
The prime minister’s critics have called on him to take a firmer stand against the groups, who follow a nationalist ideology known as Hindutva which sees all of the Indian subcontinent as the homeland of Hindus.
Mohammad Salim Engineer, National Secretary of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami Hind party, is skeptical that the prime minister will take action.
"After Narendra Modi formed the national government, the Hindutva outfits have gone wild. They know that since they had played a key role behind the victory of Mr Modi's BJP in the last general elections, no action will be taken against them,” Engineer said.