Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Barack Obama to India on January 25 as part of a historic visit in which he served as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the first U.S. president to be accorded such an honor.
The visit not only highlighted a growing defense and strategic partnership between the two leaders but also presented an opportunity to emphasize their common commitment to democratic ideals, including religious freedom and pluralism.
In the "Declaration of Friendship," Obama and Modi declared their respect for "equal opportunity for all people through democracy, effective governance and fundamental freedoms." This commitment takes on greater significance when considering the current debate within India surrounding religious conversions.
In December 2014, the Indian parliament was sidetracked for several days following news of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader's plan to host a mass conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism on Christmas Day. The planned ceremony sparked an enormous backlash among Indian opposition politicians, who demanded Modi make a statement on the issue. Eventually, the group organizing the event agreed to cancel it.
Hardline Hindu nationalists claim that non-Hindus (especially within tribal communities in northeast India) have been "tricked" or induced to convert from Hinduism and thus need to be brought back into the fold. The number of conversion ceremonies, referred to as Ghar Vapsi, or homecomings, have reportedly increased substantially since the BJP took power in June 2014.
Amidst the controversy, some BJP leaders, such as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu, have proposed passing a national anti-conversion law; the legislation is purportedly aimed at preventing forced conversions. A handful of Indian states have already adopted anti-conversion laws, which are reportedly used mainly to harass or intimidate India's religious minorities. Seventy-three percent of Indians are Hindu, while around 14 percent are Muslim, 5 percent are Christian, and another 8 percent are Sikh, Buddhist, ethno-religionist or non-religionist.
Forced or manipulated religious conversions are problematic. However, adopting a national anti-conversion law is not the answer to the problem. Allowing law enforcement or judicial authorities to determine whether a conversion has been forced or manipulated allows the state to intervene too heavily in religious matters that involve personal and ethical choices.
Modi himself has been relatively quiet on the issue of religious conversions and has signaled that he is more interested in focusing on his economic agenda rather than pursuing Hindutva (the shaping of Indian identity and culture along Hindu lines).
But even Modi's top-level officials have made controversial statements pressing Hindutva policies, which have raised alarm among India's religious minorities. In December 2014, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj provoked widespread criticism for her call to make the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu holy book) the national scripture.
Religious minorities want Modi to do more to stand up for religious freedom and to rein in the Hindutva tendencies within his own party and associated groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A group of Christian leaders met with Modi on Christmas Day to convey their concerns about mass conversions, reporting that they have instilled a sense of fear and insecurity within the Christian community.
In mid-December, church leaders released a statement calling for equal respect for all faiths and stating that "there is no place for a state religion." The statement detailed several cases of physical assaults on Christians and the desecrations of churches, including a Catholic church in New Delhi in early December.
Modi stayed away from divisive rhetoric and communal politics during the election campaign last year. In his first speech to the Indian parliament six months ago, he extended an olive branch to Muslims by acknowledging that the Indian Muslim community's lag in socioeconomic terms behind the rest of the nation was unacceptable.
But he needs to reaffirm his commitment to religious freedom and demonstrate he is not beholden to hardline groups pushing a Hindutva agenda, beginning with discouraging mass conversion rallies.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), an organization associated with the BJP that focuses on preserving and consolidating Hindu culture, is planning another Ghar Vapsi to convert over 3,000 Muslims to Hinduism in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh in early February.
Holding the ceremony at Ayodhya is particularly provocative. This is where the Babri mosque was destroyed in 1992 by Hindu militants, which led to massive Hindu-Muslim clashes that killed nearly 2,000 people. Hindus believe the Babri mosque was located at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, where a prominent Hindu temple (the Ram Temple) once existed.
During the early years of the previous BJP-led government, under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, violent attacks against religious minorities increased. But Vajpayee made an effort to rein in the hardline elements of his party and was able to tame the situation.
The question now is, How far will Modi go to rein in Hindutva supporters? Unless he makes clear that he will not tolerate activities like Ghar Vapsi, which call into question India's commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, he risks tarnishing his government's international reputation.
Failing to affirm his support for religious freedom as an integral aspect of Indian pluralistic democracy would also dampen Indo-U.S. ties. This would be highly unfortunate, given that those ties just received a major fillip with Obama's historic Republic Day visit.