Indian protests over conversions set back Modi’s reform agenda

Indian supporters of opposition parties, RJD and SP, participate in an anti-government protest in New Delhi on Monday.

Indian supporters of opposition parties, RJD and SP, participate in an anti-government protest in New Delhi on Monday.

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reform agenda suffered a setback on Monday as protests erupted in Parliament and in the streets over a campaign by Hindu hardliners linked to his party to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.

Opposition lawmakers, charging that Modi has done little to stop hardliners in his party from forcibly converting religious minorities to Hinduism, threw Parliament into an uproar, with the upper house of Parliament adjourned after descending into shouting matches.

Right-wing Hindu groups allied to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — and whose members are overwhelmingly BJP members — have conducted a series of ceremonies across India over the past week to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

Some of the Muslims have complained that they changed their religion out of fear. India is largely Hindu, but has large Muslim and Christian minorities.

Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist and longtime member of the right wing Hindu group, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Dal or the National Volunteers Association, one of the main groups behind the conversions, has remained largely silent on the issue.

Parliament has been repeatedly thrown into an uproar over the past week amid arguments over the conversions.

Opposition lawmakers say Modi’s silence is damaging the secular nature of Indian society and the religious freedoms guaranteed by its Constitution.

The Upper House of Parliament was adjourned Monday after opposition lawmakers demanded that the prime minister clarify his position on the conversions.

Muslims make up about 13 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people. The Muslim community has been particularly wary of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which won a huge majority in general elections in May.

Opposition members threw papers and swarmed to the centre of the upper house of Parliament, forcing the suspension of the session and effectively preventing the government from tabling a bill to increase foreign participation in the insurance sector.

The long-pending insurance legislation to raise the cap on foreign investment to 49 percent from 26 percent, and another bill to replace a decree to overhaul the coal sector, were considered low-hanging fruits that Modi hoped to push through parliament’s winter session, which ends on Tuesday.

But comments by the head of the right-wing Hindu group, the RSS, that India was a “Hindu nation” provoked a storm of criticism, snuffing out any chance of opposition support for government business in the upper house of Parliament, where Modi lacks a majority.

“This is an attempt to divide the society,” Nitish Kumar, an opposition leader from the state of Bihar told hundreds of people at a protest in New Delhi, referring to religious conversions.

“The government is not capable of resolving the core issues of our country, so they want to divide the society and distract people.”

Modi is facing a backlash for not doing enough to rein in hardline affiliate groups that have become emboldened in their pursuit of a Hindu-dominant agenda, threatening India’s secular foundations, critics say.

Trouble erupted this month after a group of Muslims complained they had been tricked into attending a conversion ceremony by Hindu groups. A Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker of Modi’s party had planned a mass conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, but that has been put off.


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