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A Muslim boy buys a paper fly-wheel during the celebrations to mark Eid al-Adha in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh October 6, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Ajay Verma)
Image: Reuters/Ajay Verma

Forced conversions

Interview: Shamil Shams
December 23, 2014

Indian activists have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being silent on the issue of forced religious conversions. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta tells DW why communal friction can go against Modi's development goals.


India's opposition parties and rights activists have claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not doing enough to stop the members of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from forcibly converting the country's religious minorities to Hinduism.

Earlier this month, a group of Muslims complained they had been tricked into attending a conversion ceremony by Hindu extremists. A Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker belonging to the ruling BJP had planned a mass conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, but that has been put off after the uproar in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

The issue has become more prominent due to the fact the Modi's name has been somewhat associated with anti-secular politics. In 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, some 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in communal riots. His opponents accused him of ordering the police not to intervene in the violence, a charge Modi and his party have repeatedly denied.

Dipankar Gupta, a sociology professor at Shiv Nadar University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, told DW that Modi's silence on the matter would be considered as indirect support for Hindu extremists within the ranks of his party. The communal disharmony caused by the recent forced conversions would ultimately be damaging to his development agenda, he added.

Indian PM Modi (Photo: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)
Gupta: 'There is so much at stake that the premier needs to deal with the issue quickly'Image: Reuters

DW: We have seen a resurgence of communal conflict in India. To what extent does this have to do with the ruling BJP's Hindu nationalist politics?

Dipankar Gupta: The Hindu organizations, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been talking consistently about conversions for many years. There is nothing new about it. The only reason why the issue has become newsworthy is that the incumbent government in New Delhi is run by the same group of people. But the fact is that nobody ever tried to rein in these people. It is not restricted to the BJP - the previous Congress regimes as well as other coalition governments did nothing against religious extremists and forced conversions.

But Modi has refused to take action against these groups and the ministers who are allegedly facilitating these conversions.

Why single out Modi? No prime minister has ever taken action against these people. Only during Jawaharlal Nehru's first 10 years in power [in the 1950s] were the Hindu extremists kept silent. Since then it has been the same nonsense. Modi has chosen to keep quiet on the subject. In a statement, he said that what the RSS and BJP's other partner organizations are saying about forced conversions is not on the BJP's agenda; the agenda is development, he said.

What are India's secular parties doing about it in the parliament?

They say what is going on is a terrible thing, but they are not doing anything substantial. There are organizations like Ram Sene that have come up from nowhere. The workers of this party beat up young men and women in the cafes in Bangalore and no action was taken against them. You find these kinds of gangs operating in every place but nobody seems to control them because of political influences.

And I must add that these are not very powerful groups. They can be easily dealt with.

But some people say the fact that Narendra Modi has such a charismatic personality, and that he swept into power earlier this year, could be a reason behind the emboldening of these groups.

I don't think so. We must understand that communal divisions have always existed in Indian society, but they never get politicized. Extremist groups want to politicize them but they have never actually succeeded. The one time they had a success was in 1991 when the Babri Mosque was attacked. But if you look at the history of that incident, it was the Congress' leader and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who opened the locks of the mosque and the temple thus paving the way for the demolition of the mosque.

Modi's victory in this year's general elections had nothing to do with the right-wing politics or Hindu extremism - it was due to his own appeal. All these Hindu groups need Modi more than Modi needs them. Modi can easily get rid of them, but I think that some people in his government think they should do nothing about it.

And how are India's religious minorities looking at this situation?

They are upset. The thing is that the minorities have never been safe in India during any regime - the Sikhs were killed, the Muslims were murdered and so were Christians. The minorities have also ceased to believe in the secular parties. But it is true that the BJP does not even claim to be a pro-minority party. Its constitution says the party is against the appeasement of the minorities.

You talked about Modi's development agenda. Don't you think that communal rifts in India could eventually work against his economic goals?

Hindu youths clamour atop the 16th century Muslim Babri Mosque in this 06 December 1992 file photo five hours before the structure was completely demolished by hundreds supporting Hindu fundamentalist activists (Photo: DOUGLAS E. CURRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Gupta: 'No prime minister has ever taken action against these people'Image: AFP/Getty Images

Absolutely true! By allowing these extremist groups to hang around, the premier is giving an upper hand to the opposition parties. He must control these groups because it will benefit the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the parliament.

We need to know how genuine Modi's development promises are. But this will only happen if the opposition and the ruling party sit together and discuss it in the parliament.

But what you're saying means that Modi does need the groups, like the RSS, in one way or the other?

He doesn't. He can rein them in very easily. There is so much at stake that the premier needs to do it quickly. He shouldn't allow opposition lawmakers to waste time on trivial issues and bring them to the table to talk about the country's economy.

Dipankar Gupta is a professor of sociology at Shiv Nadar University in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

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