Conversions and reconversions, whether to Christianity or back to Hinduism, are becoming an increasingly contested political issue in India and other South Asian countries, according to several reports. Stating that his party is “against forceful conversions and re-conversions”, president of nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, has asked secular Indian political parties to support “a strong anti-conversion law to prevent conversions by anyone, be they Christians, Muslims or Hindus.” (Indo-Asian News Service IANS, Jan 3) BJP President thus distanced himself from programs of re-conversion to Hinduism promoted by some hardline Hindu group in the nationalist camp. But opposition parties claim that Prime Minister Modi’s government is actually supportive of the so-called ghar wapasi (home-coming) programs, according to IANS (Dec. 25).
Other people on the Hindu side have been critical. Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh stated that Hindus should fix their own home first, before inviting others to come to it. According to Agnivesh, most Hindus embracing Islam or Christianity had not been forced or deceived in order to do it, but chose another religion in order to escape an oppressive caste system that did not give them equal status—something that should be corrected before calling people back to Hinduism (IANS, Dec. 31). A Catholic bishop from Maharashtra, Alwyn Barreto, stated that he did not object to a law against forced conversions, but that a blanket law against all conversions would infringe upon religious freedom (IANS, Jan. 3).
But the president of Hindu activist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Praveen Togadia, pleaded that ghar wapasi should not be described as religious (re)conversion. Hinduism has to be understood as a way of life, and people whose ancestors were mostly Hindus are invited to come back to that way of life (IANS, Dec 29). Togadia also repeated concerns about what he sees as the declining population of Hindus in the country; what used to be 100 percent centuries ago is now down to 82 percent, and he fears it could go down to 42 percent some day. He added that the VHP would not allow the conversion even of a single Hindu to another religion (IANS, Dec 28). Conversions have been debated in India since the 19th century; out of 29 Indian states, seven have adopted laws forbidding “forced religious conversions.”
But the topic of conversion is not merely an Indian issue. In neighboring Nepal too, the fact that evangelization and social work often go hand in hand is seen by a number of Hindus as proof that converts are actually lured through financial and other material enticements (Swarajya, Dec 28). In Sri Lanka, some Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of anti-missionary campaigns for years and make similar accusations regarding unethical conversions.
For instance, it is claimed that missionary agencies exploited the distress of the 2004 tsunami victims—both in Sri Lanka and in India’s Southern state of Tamil Nadu (Swarajya, Dec 29). In Myanmar (Burma), bills restricting both interreligious marriages and conversions of Buddhists to other religions were sent to Parliament in early December. If it passes, any Burmese citizen intending to change religion should first get administrative permission to do so. The bills have been promoted by a coalition of Buddhist monks, the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief (Églises d’Asie, Dec 6). Far from decreasing, anti-conversion movements in Asia seem to be more vigorous than ever.