The 'ghar vapsi' ceremony organised in Agra by Dharma Jagaran Manch and Bajrang Dal (photo: Hindustan Times)
The opposition has stalled proceedings in the Rajya Sabha over a campaign by Hindu hardliners in Uttar Pradesh to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. This is now affecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reform agenda - Opposition members forced the suspension of the session on Monday, thereby preventing the NDA government from tabling a bill to increase foreign participation in the insurance sector.
The long-pending amendment to raise the cap on foreign investment – to 49 percent from 26 percent - and another bill to replace an ordinance to overhaul the coal sector, were considered low-hanging fruits that Modi hoped to push through parliament's winter session.
But comments by Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the right-wing Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that India was a "Hindu nation" provoked a storm of criticism. An united opposition decided to stall government business in the upper house of parliament, where Modi lacks a majority.
"This (religious conversions) is an attempt to divide the society," Nitish Kumar, an opposition leader from Bihar, said at a protest in New Delhi.
"The government is not capable of resolving the core issues of our country, so they want to divide the society and distract people," he added.
According to Modi’s critics, the prime minister has not done enough to rein in Hindutva affiliate groups that have become emboldened in their pursuit of a Hindu-dominant agenda, threatening India's secular foundations.
Trouble erupted on December 8 when 300 Muslims in Agra were reportedly tricked into attending a conversion ceremony by Hindu groups. A Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker of Modi's party also planned a mass conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, although it was cancelled after the prime minister intervened.
Supporters label such events as ‘ghar vapsi’ (homecoming), saying that families signing up for the ceremonies were originally Hindus.
"We don't want to convert anybody ... but then Hindus should also not be converted," Bhagwat warned, adding that those who do not support religious conversions should bring in a law against it.
About a fifth of India's 1.2 billion people identify themselves as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism. Conversion is a sensitive issue, with Hindu groups saying many poor Hindus were forced over the centuries to give up their faith, or lured into Christianity and Islam.
According to Reuters, the RSS chief’s comments are likely to further irk opposition parties that have disrupted parliament over the conversion issue, demanding that the prime minister himself make a statement on the issue in the upper house.
Although Modi has privately warned lawmakers in his party to back off from controversial issues such as the conversion campaign, he has so far not made any official statement on the subject, leaving it to colleagues to fend off criticism.
Parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu said people were free to convert their religion and the government had no role in either conversions or re-conversions.
“If people want to convert, then they can convert. That right is there in the Constitution. The party has nothing to do with it. Individuals are taking the programme,” Naidu said in the Lok Sabha.
He made it clear that if someone was violating the law, it was for the state concerned – and not the Centre – to take action.
According to The Hindu newspaper, with just one day left for the current parliamentary session to end, the government has now given up all hope of clearing the Insurance Bill that has not yet been passed by either house. The Coal Mines Bill has been approved by the Lok Sabha, but considering the current stalemate, it is unlikely to make it through the Rajya Sabha.