22/12/2014 6:59 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Controversy Over Religious Conversion Bogs Down Modi Government

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally at Dumka, India's eastern Jharkhand state, on December 15, 2014. Modi campaigned in the eastern Indian state for the ongoing Jharkhand state legislative assembly elections. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI: The raging controversy surrounding religious conversion has become a political albatross for the BJP government, with the Rajya Sabha, Parliament's upper house, stalled yet again on Monday as opposition leaders demanded a debate on the matter, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a statement. Only two days remain of the winter session, while important reform bills are stuck due to the logjam in Parliament.

The controversy is amplified in the backdrop of a seemingly unending stream of provocative statements from leaders of the Sangh Parivar and reports from around the country of ghar wapsi or re-conversion drives being held and planned. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia said on Sunday that India will soon be a "100% Hindu nation".

The government's efforts in Parliament to deflect responsibility onto state governments and distance itself from the Sangh has met with little success. Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said in Lok Sabha on Monday that the government did not support conversion or re-conversion. He said BJP was "nowhere in the picture", and that "state governments must take action if any individual was doing it."

Modi's six-month old government is now facing a united opposition on the matter both inside and outside the Parliament. In the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA does not enjoy a majority, the issue has forged tremendous unity among opposition parties. Outside, leaders of the erstwhile Janata Parivar came together to attack the Modi government on what they termed the BJP's divisive politics. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, Samajwadi Party leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Azam Khan, and Janata Dal (Secular) leader Deve Gowda came together at a rally in Delhi to protest the government's policies.

Addressing the crowd, Bihar former chief minister Nitish Kumar asked: "Why has the NDA government failed to fulfil its promises made before the elections? Where is the black money that it promised to bring back?"

He accused Modi of not acting tough on the recent cases of religious conversions by right-wing Hindu groups and said the country should not be divided on religious grounds.

The attacks about the government's failure to bring back black money and about conversions rocked both houses of Parliament.

Protests In Parliament

"They promised they will give farmer one and a half times returns for their input cost, they promised bringing back black money, and creating jobs. None of this was done but they are going ahead with reconversions," said SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav said in Rajya Sabha.

He was joined by other members, including Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav and Left leader Sitaram Yechury.

Trinamool Congress leader Derek O'Brien said: "We are not running away from a discussion. We want a discussion on the issue of conversion. We want the PM to come to the house".

Congress leader Anand Sharma, meanwhile, said: "Opposition is not running away from a debate, it is the prime minister, who is shying away, resulting in the deadlock."

Opposition members then trooped near the chairman's podium, displaying placards and shouting slogans.

As protests continued, Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien adjourned the house till noon. The scene remained similar when the house met for question hour at noon. Chairman M. Hamid Ansari first adjourned the house for 15 minutes, and then till 2 p.m.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari on Monday said that political forces "disturbed" over the victory of BJP are trying to convert the agenda of development into that of vote bank politics. "As far as vote bank politics is concerned, which is a very very general practice for them and development is not their agenda, they want to convert the agenda of development and good governance into vote bank politics," he said, replying to a question on the issue of religious conversions.

The Lok Sabha was adjourned till 2.20 p.m. on Monday following a protest by opposition leaders on the issue of religious conversions. Soon after Congress member K.C. Venugopal raised the issue during zero hour quoting an incident from Kerala, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venakiah Naidu responded by saying that the government was not involved in it.

Right-wing parties meanwhile maintained that there was nothing wrong with conversions, or "re-conversions" to Hinduism. The Shiv Sena spoke out strongly against "those who kept mum when Hindus were converted to Muslims."

(with inputs from agencies)