By his count, Vyankatesh Abdeo has helped convert 700,000 Indian Christians and Muslims to Hinduism over the last two decades, but he would describe it differently.
“It is not conversion; it is reconversion,” said the professorial Abdeo, national secretary of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a pro-Hindu organization.
“A thousand years ago, all the Muslims and Christians in India were Hindu. They were converted by the sword. We are just bringing them back to their original faith.”
Hindu fundamentalists, claiming that Christian missionaries and Muslim conquerors centuries ago converted Indians by force, have for years quietly sought to win them back.
This year, seemingly invigorated by the rise of a right-wing Hindu government in New Delhi, they have organized mass reconversion “camps,” including some where people allege they were duped or threatened into changing faiths.
The effort has grabbed headlines and created pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once worked for the main Hindu nationalist organization backing the conversion drive. Opposition lawmakers disrupted Parliament for two weeks demanding that Modi speak out on the issue, but he has remained quiet.
Modi’s allies say his governing Bharatiya Janata Party does not condone conversions obtained by force or fraud, which are illegal in India. But the prime minister’s refusal to distance himself from the hard-liners has fueled critics who accuse the party of pro-Hindu bias and added to a series of controversies that have overshadowed his attempts to jump-start India’s economy since taking office in May.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence affects his credibility as a head of the nation loyal to the constitution,” social scientist Shiv Visvanathan wrote Wednesday in the Hindu, a secular daily newspaper.
The head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the Hindu paramilitary organization for which Modi worked for more than a decade before going into politics — has vowed to continue the conversions, which the group calls ghar wapsi, or homecoming. The RSS is widely seen as the governing party’s ideological parent, and several of its alumni hold posts in Modi’s government.
“We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way,” RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was quoted as saying in Indian news reports. “They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving.”
The controversy pits people like Bhagwat, who believe India is a Hindu nation, against the secular values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. According to a 2001 census, the most recent figures available, 80.5% of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindus. Muslims, who make up 13.4% of the population, and Christians, who make up 2.3%, are the largest religious minorities.
In early December in the northern city of Agra, more than 200 Muslims were reportedly converted to Hinduism at a homecoming event organized by another RSS affiliate. Some later told Indian news media that they were misled and thought they were signing up to receive government ration cards.
Plans for a similar event on Christmas Day targeting 5,000 Muslims and Christians in Aligarh were called off after an outcry in the national media. Christian leaders in the northern town said it was an attempt to disrupt Christmas.
“They could have chosen any other day. But they picked Dec. 25, of all days, to provoke us,” said Sunil Luke, pastor at two churches in Aligarh.
With a conservative government in power, Luke said, “these fringe elements believe it is their chance to cash in.”
Khaled Ahmed, a Muslim cleric in Aligarh, said Hindu groups had promised poor Muslims cash or other benefits to attend the conversion ceremony.
“This particular event may have been postponed, but they are not gone forever,” Ahmed said. “They will come back at us.”
The uproar over conversions carries particular weight for Modi, who has assiduously tried to outrun allegations that in 2002, when he was chief executive of his home state of Gujarat, he did not intervene to stop religious riots that killed hundreds, mostly Muslims.
American officials banned Modi from entering the United States on the grounds of violating religious freedom until early this year, when the Obama administration, eager to refresh relations with India, began courting him aggressively. President Obama rescheduled his State of the Union message in order to accept Modi’s invitation to be guest of honor at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on Jan. 26.
While Modi has focused on economic initiatives, his government has been distracted by multiple flare-ups over religion.
Hindu fundamentalists have spoken out against interfaith marriages, accusing Muslims of marrying Hindu girls to convert them to Islam in a practice dubbed “love jihad.” Analysts say the issue was created to stir up the Hindu vote ahead of the national elections that brought Modi to power.
Smriti Irani, minister for human resources, has announced plans to restructure the national school curriculum to include ancient Hindu texts. Her office also directed schools to carry out activities on Christmas to mark the birth of two prominent Hindu nationalists, but rescinded the order after widespread opposition to having children attend school on Dec. 25, a national holiday.
In early December, Modi was forced to apologize after a junior minister in his government described non-Hindus as “illegitimate children,” but rejected calls to fire her.
“Two signs worry me the most,” said Sidharth Bhatia, a journalist and commentator. “One is the direct attack on minorities — a constant focus on ‘love jihad,’ conversions and so on. The other is indirect attacks like tampering with the education system. These are assaults on two different levels, and Modi’s silence on these things is extremely worrying.”
Abdeo, whose Vishva Hindu Parishad group is affiliated with the RSS, said the previous national government led by the secular Indian National Congress — widely blamed for corruption and a rudderless economy — “was trying to crush Hindus” with policies aimed at protecting religious minorities.
“With Narendra Modi’s government,” Abdeo said, “Hindus have their self-respect back.”
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.