VARANASI, India — When a group of men approached Abdul Rahman Gazi in early December and offered him help in securing government benefits, including state-subsidized housing, to attend a Hindu religious ceremony in Agra, the Muslim ragpicker was happy to oblige.
At the ceremony, Mr. Gazi and around 270 other Muslim Indians sat around a fire and recited prayers to the Hindu goddess Kali. Two days later, while reading a newspaper, Mr. Gazi discovered he had unwittingly converted to Hinduism during the ceremony as part of an aggressive campaign among evangelical Hindus that’s stirring political controversy in this diverse country of 1.2 billion people and raising questions about new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“We were lured,” said Mr. Gazi. “We were told to take part in [the] ceremony. They didn’t mention anything about conversion.”
Hindu activists call the conversions “homecomings,” reflecting their goal of purging India of so-called “foreign” religions brought by invading armies, European missionaries and others over the centuries. Their rationale is that every Indian’s ancestor was once Hindu, so converts should be grateful for “returning” to the religion of their forefathers.
“The media is calling it ‘conversion,’” said Ajju Chauhan, a spokesman for the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu youth group that organizes conversion events. “Let us clarify: These people or their parents were forcefully converted into Muslims a long time ago. They were crying to come back to their maternal religion. We are bringing them back.”
But people who have attended the events often claim they are tricked or coerced into participating in them.
SEE ALSO: ‘Make in India’: Narendra Modi envisions manufacturing hub to rival China
“During the event there was a mass of people with saffron flags and clothes,” said Munira Begum, 39, referring to the golden yellow color often worn by Hindu nationalists. Ms. Begum attended another ceremony in Agra in December. “We were very scared to do anything against them,” she said. “We sat quietly and let happen whatever was going on.”
In a country that’s technically secular but where violence has often erupted between Hindus and the minority Muslim community, the conversions have become a political headache for Mr. Modi, whose ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that also stages conversions.
Since Mr. Modi took office seven months ago, his political opponents have been watching him closely for signs of the prime minister giving preferential treatment to Hinduism. Opposition leaders have also urged Mr. Modi to publicly condemn the events.
“These conversions and silence of the government over them is against India and its constitution,” said John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council, a government advisory panel. “They have the indirect backing of the state.”
The controversy also revives memories of perhaps the most controversial moment of the 64-year-old prime minister’s career.
Mr. Modi’s perceived inaction during a series of riots in 2002 in Gujarat, where he was then chief minister, has long fueled perceptions that he wants to undermine secularism in India to favor the majority Hindus. Around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the riots when throngs attacked the Muslim community after Islamic terrorists were blamed for a fire on a train that killed Hindu pilgrims.
The grisly incident even led to a 2005 visa ban imposed by the George W. Bush administration blocking Mr. Modi from traveling to the United States, a ban that was only lifted earlier this year when Mr. Modi became a candidate for president. Last month’s conversions have again raised questions about the new government’s plans.
“We were not noticing such events prior to [the] formation of Modi’s government,” said Abhay Kumar Dubey, an analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “These started to came [to] light after BJP came [to] power.”
Around 80 percent of Indians are Hindu; around 13 percent are Muslim; Christians compose less than 3 percent of the population; and other minority religions, like Sikhism, make up the rest. Attended by as many as thousands of people or as few as only a handful, the conversion events won’t alter those proportions significantly. But the Hindu nationalists are determined to try.
“We’ll take over every single church and mosque in India,” said Rajeshwar Singh, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “We spent $79,000 approximately on the reconversion of a thousand families. In the [northern Indian] Braj region only, we brought back 273,000 people to Hinduism.”
Mr. Modi has won praise for his pro-business agenda and conducted a triumphal U.S. visit this fall that included a rapturous rally with Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden and private talks with President Obama at the White House. But the conversion incident is bringing the first U.S. critiques of his social agenda.
“Mr. Modi must break his silence and issue a stern warning to emboldened Hindu militants before their actions turn further progress on economic reform into a sideshow, with the politics and divisiveness occupying center stage,” The New York Times editorialized this week.
For now, Mr. Modi’s government appears to be heeding the critics’ voices.
Police have arrested conversion event organizers on charges of stoking communal tensions. And the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal called off a massive conversion of 4,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslims in the city of Uttar Pradesh on Christmas Day after opposition politicians vowed to block the prime minister’s agenda in parliament until he publicly denounced the conversions.
If Mr. Modi signaled that the Christmas Day conversions should be canceled in a bid to deprive the opposition of an issue, as nearly every political observer in India believes, then it’s a sign the prime minister is seeking to curb the excesses of the groups that brought him to power, said Mr. Dubey. That’s a tricky balancing act that will be a challenge for Mr. Modi to maintain as his tenure progresses.
“The right-wing activist allies of the BJP can work as hard-liners on the Hindutva agenda,” said Mr. Dubey, using the Indian term that describes Hindu nationalists. “The BJP can’t adopt a hard-line position on Hindutva because they are in power. The government has to project themselves as unbiased.”