The alleged forced conversion of around 300 Muslims to Hinduism in Agra triggered an uproar in Parliament and drew widespread condemnation from Islamic organisations on Wednesday, prompting Uttar Pradesh police to sound a state-wide alert over similar events lined up this month.
Muslim groups staged protests and called for
protection of vulnerable members
of the community on a day clerics across the state decided to discuss the issue during Friday prayers.
The camp -- masked as "ghar wapsi" or homecoming of Hindus who had apparently switched to other religions in the past -- raised a storm when 57 Muslim families, mostly poor migrants from Bihar and Bengal living in a colony on the outskirts of Agra, said on Tuesday they were tricked into a conversion ceremony hosted jointly by the Dharma Jagaran Manch and the Bajrang Dal the day before with the promise to offer them BPL and ration cards.
They refuted the two hard-line Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates' claim that these people came and embraced Hinduism on their own volition.
Haji Jamiluddin Qureshi, president of the Rashtriya Sarvdaliya Muslim Action Committee, sought stern action against Bajrang Dal activists involved in the incident.
"It was a planned exercise targeting poor Muslims, who were lured in the name of ration cards and water supply. Armed Bajrang Dal activists surrounded the venue, leaving no scope for the Muslims to leave. Later, they spread the lie that the people had converted."
In Parliament, the Opposition demanded a response from the government in both Houses, saying religious conversions by force and by allurement is a criminal offence.
"They (Muslims) were lured. They (Bajrang Dal) took advantage of their poverty to convert them. If it is not stopped, it will cause communal tension in the whole country. The government must take strict action," said Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati.
Members from the Congress, Left, Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party echoed her sentiments and shouted 'Pradhan Mantri Jawab Do (Prime Minister reply)'.
Outside Parliament, CPI's D Raja alleged that attempts were being made to impose the Hindutva agenda on everybody.
CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury said this was the dirtiest of vote-bank politics being played by the RSS and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while former Union minister and Congress leader Veerappa Moily called the move "anti-national".
The RSS dismissed the row as an unnecessary fuss. “There are people who switched religion for different reasons. Many of them want to return home now. What is wrong in it?” asked RSS publicity chief Manmohan Vaidya.
Responding to the attack by the Opposition that demanded the intervention PM Narendra Modi, the government washed its hands off the issue, saying it had no role and that law and order is a state subject.
Leaders of the ruling BJP claimed the reconversion was voluntary and it was not forcibly done.
However, minister of state for parliamentary affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the government was committed to the country's secular ideals. "I want to clarify that we are as dedicated to harmony and secularism as anyone else. As far as this incident is concerned, an FIR has been registered. Naming a particular organisation for political reasons is not right."
He was referring to cases being registered at Sadar police station in Agra on Tuesday night.
The Dharam Jagaran Manch was unfazed by the FIR drawn against its state convenor Kishore Valmiki and other activists, based on a complaint by one of those who attended the conversion event.
The case has been registered under Section 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to any act of promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion and carries a punishment of three years in jail if found guilty. Section 415 (using fraudulent means) was also slapped on the organisation.
"Suitable action will follow," said senior superintendent of police Shalabh Mathur.
The din over the controversial religious conversion follows an announcement by the Hindu Yuva Vahini to "reconvert" over 2,000 people in a huge programme at communally-sensitive Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh on December 18.
"We have permission from the administration," said Sunil Singh, state president of the outfit floated by Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand BJP MP for Gorakhpur.
Singh denied reports that conversion functions were held at Gorakhpur's Gorakhnath temple, where Adityanath is the head priest. The shrine has often been rumoured to be behind such exercises for many years.
The Dharma Jagaran Manch, too, has planned a programme in Aligarh that Adityanath is supposed to attend. "We will go ahead with our plan in Aligarh on Christmas. Nearly 5,000 Christians and Muslims will embrace Hinduism," said Rajeshwar Singh, the organisation's regional head, undeterred by the fact that a case has been filed for the Agra function.
The scheduled events prompted police to sound a statewide alert and beef up security in sensitive areas. "The superintendents of police of all the districts have been directed to remain vigilant and monitor the activities of organisations involved in conversion programmes. The police cannot stop a person from choosing a religion or adopting another religion, (but) if there is a complaint of forcible conversion, the police will act against the organisation concerned," said Mukul Goel, the additional director general of police (law and order).
In Muslim-majority Kashmir, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) condemned the alleged forcible conversion of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. "The way the Sangh Parivar and its front organisations like the RSS and the Bajrang Dal are aiming to change the demographic picture of the country is extremely alarming," said senior party leader Hameed Karra in Hazratbal.
"The Sangh Parivar is apparently in a hurry and is taking advantage of the BJP's ascendance to power to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation), an objective that would be resisted by all right-thinking people in the country."
The constitution guarantees the freedom to practise and profess any faith but several states have laws restricting or regulating religious conversations that vary in their interpretation of what constitutes conversion and the punishment for breaking the law. For instance, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act says a person seeking to convert to another religion must first get permission from the district magistrate to do so, failing which one could be jailed for up to three years.
(With inputs from agencies and HT correspondents in Delhi, Gorakhpur and Lucknow)
Watch: Outrage in Parliament over mass religious conversion in Agra