NEW DELHI — In this secular but predominantly Hindu nation of more than 1.2 billion people, religious conversions have always been a touchy subject.
Earlier this week, more than 50 impoverished Muslim families in a slum in the northern Indian city of Agra attended a simple but controversial ceremony at which they were asked by a Hindu priest to chant and throw offerings into the holy fire in front of some Hindu idols.
The priest then welcomed the Muslims into the Hindu fold.
Some Muslims in the neighborhood of trash collectors told local reporters that it was all a fraud. They said that a Hindu activist had assured them that by attending the ceremony, they will get the government’s coveted “below-poverty-line” identity card and access to state welfare assistance in health and education.
Bajrang Dal, the organizers of the ceremony and a radical Hindu group associated with Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s party, said that the ceremony was held in the open and the religious conversion was voluntary.
But the incident created an uproar in parliament and on social media all week about how the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is steering the nation toward a Hindu identity.
The debate also raised the contentious issue of conversion activities by some evangelical Christians and Muslim groups.
“Muslim and Christian evangelists have always been opposed to laws that ban or restrain conversions in the name of freedom of religion,” said an essay in the news portal called Firstpost.
The Indian constitution grants religious freedom to its citizens. But five Indian states have enacted stringent laws against conversions that are carried out by force or allurement. Implementation of these laws has been arbitrary.
Members of the BJP seized the opportunity and called for a ban on forced religious conversions.
"We are more than willing to discuss the religious conversion issue, we want a law against it,” said parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, echoing a longstanding BJP demand aimed at curbing the missionary activities of Christian groups.
Opposition Congress party lawmaker Anand Sharma called it “a diabolic agenda” of Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP.
Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita should be declared a “national scripture.” Another BJP state leader, Manohar Lal Khattar, went one step further. He said the Bhagavad-Gita was above the nation’s constitution.
An affiliate of the BJP has asked for donations this week to fund an event in the northern city of Aligarh to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism this Christmas.