The state of religious freedom in India is in question after a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of parliament declared that on Christmas Day he would host a Hindu conversion ceremony, a ceremony where Christians and Muslims are publicly pressured to abandon their faith. While the conversion ceremony has since been temporarily called off after the BJP issued a statement condemning forced conversions, the ceremony comes on the heels of escalating violence against religious minorities in India.
Conversion ceremonies are usually hosted by hardline Hindutva groups, like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and typically target poorer Muslims and Christians. Force, fraud, and coercion are often involved in the conversions, including bribes in the form of money or food. Over the past several months, the RSS is reported to have forcibly converted at least 50 Muslims in Agra, as well as an additional 100 Christians in Gujarat. The planned Christmas Day conversion ceremony, also hosted by RSS, planned to convert over 4,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslims back to Hinduism.
Forced conversions and communal tensions are not new in India, and have occurred under previous Indian governments. However, some allege that violence against religious minorities have been on the rise since the BJP took power in May. Since then, reports found that at least 110 people of minority faith have been killed, and there have been 560 reported acts of violence against religious minorities in India.
BJP External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s call earlier this month to make the Hindu book of scripture, the Bhagavad Ghita, the national scripture also raised eyebrows and calls into question the BJP’s commitment to religious freedom. The burning of St. Sebastian’s Church in New Delhi this month also has caused concern among religious minorities that they are less safe under a BJP government.
Christian leaders in India recently released a statement calling for greater protection of religious minorities. The Indian bishops outlined limitations on freedom of expression, specific instances of violence against communities of faith in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi, and desecration of places of worship, as just a few examples of hostility toward religious minorities.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to office, religious minorities and the international community have watched closely to see how Modi and the BJP would handle matters of religious freedom. While the BJP has responded appropriately in condemning forced conversion ceremonies, protecting the rights of religious minorities requires more than a statement.
Unfortunately, concerns about the state of religious freedom in India are often only addressed when it is politically expedient to do so. Current calls from the opposition Congress party in parliament for Modi himself to make a statement against religious conversion are merely attempts to derail Modi’s commendable economic reform agenda.
Forced or manipulated religious conversions constitute an infringement of religious liberty. However, adopting a national anti-conversion law would likely be counterproductive. Muslims and Christians have protested against anti-conversion laws that have been adopted by a handful of Indian States, alleging that these laws are often misused to intimidate religious minorities and justify mob violence.
Modi should seize this opportunity to take a stand for religious liberty in India. Religious freedom shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a core tenet of Modi’s pro-freedom and pro-economic liberalization agenda.