A volley of provocative comments against religious minorities by right-wing Hindu fringe leaders in India has sparked a major controversy which has put the spotlight on the growing culture of intolerance.
The floodgates were opened when a lawmaker from a regional political party, the Shiv Sena, in the western state of Maharashtra recently declared that Muslims in the country were suffering due to vote bank politics and that disenfranchising them would solve problems.
"Till Muslims are used as vote-banks, they have no future … the day voting rights of Muslims are taken away, the facade of people who claim to be 'secular' will be exposed," said Sanjay Raut, a member of the Indian parliament.
The Shiv Sena is an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose MP Sakshi Maharaj has also stoked a controversy by calling for a strict family planning law, and demanding that those avoiding sterilization should not have the right to vote.
"When Hindus go for sterilization, Muslims should also opt for it. There should be one law for everyone. There will be no appeasement of any section in our regime," he said. Earlier this year, Maharaj created a major commotion and embarrassment for PM Modi's party by exhorting Hindu women to have at least four children.
Stirring the communal cauldron further, Sadhvi Deva Thakur of the Hindu Mahasabha (Greater Hindu Gathering) recently demanded imposition of "emergency" to enforce forcible sterilization of Muslims and Christians so that "they can't increase their numbers."
Furthermore, she said that idols of Hindu gods and goddesses should be placed in mosques and churches.
Climate of intolerance
A series of recent bans ranging from eating beef in some states to screening the controversial film "Fifty Shades of Grey," and the issue of forced reconversions earlier have sparked charges of a growing environment of fanaticism under PM Modi.
Reactions among the political class were fast and furious. "It is disgusting to hear such remarks ... We are living in a democratic country, not in any Taliban state," said the opposition Congress party's spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
"This seems to be a deliberate ploy. The idea behind these pronouncements is to create social divides and Prime Minister Modi has done nothing to shut up these voices that seem to have a free reign," lamented D. Raja of the Community Party of India.
A red-faced BJP, however, distanced itself completely from the Shiv Sena's remarks on Muslims' voting rights, making it clear that the suggestion for a disenfranchisement of Muslims was unacceptable.
"Such suggestions or purported suggestions should not be discussed even hypothetically. These are not acceptable. Such suggestions are not allowed under the Constitution," Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said.
He said that the minorities, including the Muslims, were as much the citizens of the country as anybody else.
The drift of events has been disturbing, and leading members from the Christian and Muslim communities are worried.
"The objective is neither religion, nor spirituality, nor upliftment of the poor but simply to create tensions in the community on the basis of religion so that there is a polarization of Hindu votes in order to gain political power," said Father Paul Thelakkat, official spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church (SMC).
Others like Kamal Farooqui, member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, believe hardline Hindu leaders are trying to sow hatred and polarize populations especially after recently released data showed India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
The findings were made public by the Washington based Pew Research Center early this month.
In February, Modi broke his silence on the issue and pledged to uphold freedom of faith and crack down on inciters of sectarian tensions - his first unmistakable censure of religious violence after a series of attacks on Christian properties in Delhi.
Addressing UNESCO on April 10, Modi again reiterated that "every citizen of every faith, culture and creed" has an equal place in society.
It may now be time to go beyond words if Modi's government is keen on preserving India's syncretic and pluralistic culture.