MUMBAI, India — 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 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindus. Muslims, who make up 13.4 percent of the population, and Christians, who make up 2.3 percent, 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.