Following the landslide victory of Narendra Modi and his BJP party during the last elections in India, reports of forced religious conversions seem to be on the rise, and international media is taking notice.
On Christmas day 2014, The Times of India reported that 59 Christians in the Kottayam district of Kerala were “converted” to Hinduism by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), two right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations with ties to the leading BJP political party.
The alleged conversions in Kerala came less than a day after the district’s chief Minister Oommen Chandy claimed that there were no such conversions happening in the region. These allegations also surfaced shortly after reports just days earlier of forced conversion to Christianity in other states. In Uttar Pradesh, Ramvati Devi said she converted to Christianity after being promised a government job for her husband and free education for her children in missionary schools. According to the VHP, there is a list of more than 20 villages where these forced Christian conversions are reportedly taking place.
As the birthplace of four of the world's major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), India is now home to a majority Hindu population (80 percent) and a significant Muslim population (15 percent) as well as Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, among others. Despite generally peaceful coexistence, religious tensions have spilled over on many occasions in the past.
A representative from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) general secretary V Mohanan said what happened in Kerala was “not conversion, but re-conversion.”
On Christmas Eve, speaking in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, senior VHP member Pravin Togadia announced the creation of two 24/7 Hindu helplines and said:
The VHP will go all out to promote the Hindu cause even if it means going against the BJP government in the state.
The helplines are dedicated to helping the cause of Hindus including issues such as health, education, legal aid, religion and culture.
US newspapers the Washington Post and the New York Times published stories on the issue of forced religious conversions in India in December 2014. The Post reported that more than 50 impoverished Muslim families converted to Hinduism with the promise of government benefits (such as welfare checks) following the conclusion of the ceremony, while the Times detailed the political motives behind forced conversions.
Many governmental officials weren’t happy at the widespread news coverage of such a controversial and sensitive topic. With the recently elected BJP party facing major political backlash for the alleged incidents, the discontent reached the office of the prime minister.
Following a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the chief of the RSS, Modi reportedly threatened to resign from his post “if the image of the government is hampered by the leaders who keep making controversial remarks.”
Immediately after the meeting, the RSS gave the green light to take action against leaders who made such claims to separate themselves from these “loose” statements.
Despite the government’s best efforts to censor the discussion on the topic, Indians have actively responded. According to NDTV, a protest took place in parliament. The upper house of parliament was eventually forced to adjourn early after proceedings were unable to continue as a result of the shouting from outside.
Upset Indians have also taken to social media to express their current discontent with the government’s handling of the issue. Newsflicks, a social media-based news website based in India, reminded the Indian government of the laws which they had already set in place:
— Newsflicks (@newsflicks) December 23, 2014
Others, such as engineer Dushyant Patel, pointed towards the vast differences between Pakistan and India’s response to forced conversions:
— Dushyant Patel (@Dushy4nt) December 11, 2014
Twitter account Christian Persecution reminded its followers of an older story from August 2014 by Headlines Today of the religious conversion of Christians in Asroi, India, and the transformation of their 19-year-old church into a Hindu temple:
— christianpersecution (@persecutionind) August 28, 2014
How central and local governments will respond to continued forced conversions remains to be seen.