For BJP, conversions “corrupt India,” words the Catholic Church views as damaging to the country
Speaking in Bhopal on 31 October, Rajnath Singh (pictured), head of the largely Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that there “is a need to check large scale religious conversions carried out by foreign forces,” because “foreign missionaries are using religion to infiltrate India and corrupt its culture.” Ultimately, “illegal mass conversions” are a “threat to national security.” In places like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, “30 per cent of the tribal population changed religion,” the nationalist leader claimed.
Prominent Indian Catholic figures unanimously dismissed such claims, starting with the bishops of Madhya Pradesh, where Singh launched his anti-conversion diatribe. For Fr Babu, the remarks by the BJP president are “tactless” and “tasteless.” People “expect more mature and responsible statements from their political leaders.” For the CBCI spokesman, conjuring up such fantasies undermines the “unique religious and cultural mosaic that is India.” Instead, “India’s political leaders should focus on the challenges the country has to meet at home and abroad.”
Singh’s statement comes at a time of great crisis for the BJP, following setbacks in State elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh. Since last April’s defeat in the union-wide elections at the hands of the United Progressive Alliance, the BJP has been engaged in an important internal debate about its identity and goals as a party. Various leaders have accused the current leadership of shortsightedness. They point out that not only is Hindu nationalism no longer paying any electoral dividend, but is also losing support in the population.
Still, the issue of forced conversions comes up on a regular basis at the local and national levels. Singh himself has in the past called on the government to introduce an India-wide anti-conversion law; currently, only five States have adopted such legislation. India’s constitution recognises freedom of religion and is silent about conversions.
This has not stopped radical politicians and religious leaders from using fears about the integrity of Indian culture and loyalty to Hindu traditions to their own ends.
In a number of cases, groups at the extreme fringe of the nationalist camp have accused Christians, but also Muslims, of promoting forced conversions among tribal communities and the poorest segments of the population.
Some of the most radical swamis have frequently sponsored public shows involving reconversions to Hinduism as part of their propaganda against an alleged invasion of India by enemy cultures (see Nirmala Carvalho, “Maharashtra, 6,000 Christians reconverted to Hinduism by extremist groups,” in AsiaNews, 27 October 2009).