BJP's push for ban on religious conversion sparks fierce debate

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) controversial push for a law to ban religious conversions has sparked a heated debate in the country.

The Hindu nationalist party's president, Mr Amit Shah, together with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, is among those who have called for nationwide legislation to outlaw such practices, which often see people of a certain faith publicly pressured to abandon it.

"BJP is against forced conversions and that is why we want to introduce a law," Mr Shah, who is considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most trusted aide, told reporters recently.

But the proposal has faced stiff opposition from liberals and opposition parties such as the Congress and left-wing parties, which say such a blanket ban goes against the Indian Constitution and the freedom to practise the religion of one's choice.

"Conversion by force, inducement and allurement by any promise of money and reconversion by force - both are unconstitutional and unethical. But the Constitution is very clear, people have a right to choose their faith," said Mr D. Raja, an MP from the Communist Party of India.

"The BJP won't get the political support but they are creating a kind of suffocating atmosphere in the country. This is right-wing demagoguery."

The BJP and its far-right Hindu affiliates have long been worried about religious conversions.

The Hindu right-wing group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for which the BJP is the political front, has often accused Christian missionaries and Muslims of converting poor Hindu Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, among others, with inducements of cash and a better life or even forcibly.

More than 80 per cent of India's 1.25 billion population is Hindu, while Muslims make up 13.4 per cent and Christians, 2.3 per cent. Religious conversions have long been a highly contentious political and social issue in India.

While Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, was not in favour of religious conversions, other leaders like B.R. Ambedkar, called the father of the Indian Constitution, saw religious conversion as a way for lower-caste Hindus like the Dalits to escape discrimination within the caste system. He himself converted to Buddhism.

But the recent debate was triggered following attempts by the RSS and other Hindu groups to hold reconversions or "homecoming programmes" to bring Muslim and Christian converts back into the Hindu fold.

In Agra, 60 families were allegedly forced to convert to Hinduism at one such ceremony, leading the opposition to block parliamentary proceedings early this month.

Many see the controversy over religious conversions as a test of Mr Modi's promise to protect minorities and concentrate on the development agenda.

"Right-wing groups feel they have the political right to do this and that the government will turn a blind eye. If the present government says its focus is on development, then it is important to denounce such activities. Instead there is a deafening silence," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"Banning conversions requires political consensus. It needs to be debated and discussed. This (demand for an anti-conversion law) seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to fend off attention from the crisis (of reconversion)."

Fringe groups, too, have come out in support of an anti-conversion law, with some arguing that such homecoming ceremonies cannot be taken as conversions.

Still, others see the controversy and recent incidents - such as when a junior minister used a pejorative term to refer to non-Hindus - as part of an attempt by the BJP to keep the Hindu agenda alive for electoral gains. The BJP needs to win in successive state elections to push up its numbers in the Upper House where representatives are chosen by state assemblies.

"Conversions and anti-conversions are not a serious issue to get political mileage, but it shows people that Modi, who has been focused on development, is also for the Hindu agenda," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"I think it is the game plan of the BJP and its sister organisations to keep the core issue alive. They want to polarise society."

This article was first published on Dec 31, 2014.
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