India struggles with forced religious conversions

Minorities in India fear violence as Hindu nationalist groups push for conversions

(CNN) – A nationwide debate is raging now in India, over the practice of forced religious conversion.

It’s a question of ethics reaching to the highest levels of government to the lowest levels of society.

Work most don’t want to do: sifting through garbage, in search of anything that will sell. It’s the only source of livelihood this Muslim community has known for generations. Employment options are limited because most don’t have valid paperwork.

“Hindu activists came here and told us they’d give us identity cards, rations cards for subsidized food, government jobs, they lured us and we fell for it.”

Lured into religious conversion; Ismail shows me where it happened.

“They put up bricks, lit a fire, made us all sit around as a priest performed the rituals. Then suddenly they told us you are no longer Muslims, you are now Hindus.”

150 Muslims were part of that ceremony. The Hindu priest even gave Ismail a new name. Mohammed Ismail became Rajumar, which means “Hindu prince”.

“I don’t understand why this is happening; why Hindus are being converted into Muslims and Muslims into Hindus.”

Religious conversion has always been a controversial issue in secular India. Hindu activists who backed this ceremony point to a long history of evangelical Christian and Muslim groups converting Hindus.

“If Christians and Muslims have been converting our people for centuries what’s wrong if we convert them, we are not forcing anyone, they are coming out of choice.”

Despite the claims that the conversions were voluntary, this ceremony is now at the center of a nationwide debate on the ethics of religious conversions in India, paralyzing Parliament for days.

Opposition lawmakers; demanding the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi rein in Hindu hard-liners who they say were emboldened by his election. Modi has in the past asked members of his Hindu nationalist party not to make provocative statements but he has yet to comment on the conversion issue being debated in parliament.

Analysts say Modi’s focus may well be on the economy and international relations, but what happens here in communities like this, perhaps the real test for his government.

One Hindu nationalist group was also planning to re-convert thousands of Christians on Christmas Day in Uttar Pradesh state. State authorities banned the program but the group says they will go ahead with their plan, perhaps at a later date.

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