India lawmakers demand Modi speak on Hindu conversions

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NEW DELHI (AP) — Opposition lawmakers, charging that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to stop hard-liners in his party from forcibly converting religious minorities to Hinduism, threw Parliament into an uproar Monday, with the upper house repeatedly adjourned after descending into shouting matches.

Right-wing Hindu groups allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have conducted a series of ceremonies across India over the past week to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

Some of the Muslims, though, later said they had changed religions out of fear, raising the specter of religious communalism and a growing political divide in a country that has struggled for years with intermittent Hindu-Muslim violence.

India is mostly Hindu, but has a significant Muslim minority and a smaller Christian one.

Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist and longtime member of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Dal, one of the two main groups behind the conversions, has remained mostly silent on the issue.

On Sunday, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, converted 30 Christians to Hinduism in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In the western state of Gujarat, the VHP said 200 Christians had participated in weekend "homecoming" ceremonies.

Hindu hard-liners often call the ceremonies "homecomings," insisting that members of minority religions are descended from Hindus who converted to Christianity or Islam.

Similar conversions were performed earlier this month in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where around 100 Muslims converted to Hinduism. Many, though, said later that they were threatened with violence if they didn't go along, and that they were promised government ration cards and money if they did become Hindus.

Hindu hard-line organizations were key political backers of Modi, who was voted into office earlier this year in a victory over the long-powerful Congress party. Since his election, the hard-line groups have become increasingly vocal, calling for the transformation of India into a Hindu nation.

"We are going to take the percentage of Hindus to 100 percent in the country," Praveen Togadia, a VHP leader, said in a weekend speech. "We won't tolerate Hindus becoming a minority in the country."

Indian Muslims have long been wary of Modi. In 2002, he was accused of failing to stop anti-Muslim riots that shook Gujarat state, where he was then the top elected official. The violence left at least 1,000 people dead. Modi has rejected the accusations, and India's Supreme Court has said that it found no evidence to prosecute him.

Some Christian groups say fear has also been spreading in their communities. Early this month, a Roman Catholic church was burned in New Delhi in a suspected case of arson. Last week, a group singing Christmas carols was attacked in the southern city of Hyderabad.

Meanwhile, as members of Parliament have battled over the past week about the conversions and the statements by Hindu leaders, Modi has barely mentioned the issue at all.

To many members of religious minorities, that is deeply worrying.

"The prime minister's silence has been deafening," said Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the New Delhi Archdiocese. "If Modi does not speak up now, the situation is going to slip out of his hands."

Christians account for about 2.3 percent of India's 1.2 billion people and largely coexist peacefully with Hindus. About 14 percent of Indians are Muslims.

Modi's education minister, Smriti Irani, caused an uproar a couple of weeks ago when she suggested canceling the Dec. 25 school holiday so students could attend classes on good governance. That idea was quietly scuttled.

Opposition lawmakers say Modi's silence is damaging the secular nature of Indian society and the religious freedoms guaranteed by the country's constitution.

The upper house of Parliament was repeatedly adjourned Monday after opposition lawmakers demanded that the prime minister clarify his position on the conversions.

The impasse in Parliament has paralyzed a series of key bills, stalling government efforts to overhaul the economy and boost growth.

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