NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party said on Saturday it does not support forceful religious conversions, distancing itself from a sensitive issue that has drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties and hurt the government's reform agenda.
Mr Modi has in recent weeks come under fire for being slow to rein in his hardline affiliate groups that are allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism.
Critics say such groups undermine the secular foundations of multi-faith India and have become more assertive since Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in May. "BJP is not supportive of any forceful conversions," party president Amit Shah said, adding that his party was supportive of bringing in an anti-conversion law.
India's 1.2 billion people are predominantly Hindus, but the country has about 160 million Muslims and a small proportion of Christians.
Religious conversions are a hot button issue for Hindu nationalists in India, which was colonised for centuries by Muslim and Christian invaders. Some hardliners want the entire country to become a land of Hindus.
Earlier this month, Muslim slum-dwellers complained they had been tricked into a conversion ceremony by Hindu groups who attracted them with promises of cheap government rations and voter identity cards. Indian police are investigating the case.
In another incident, a Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker of Mr Modi's party planned a conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, but cancelled the event after the prime minister intervened.
Supporters define such events as a 'homecoming', saying families signing up for the ceremonies were originally Hindus. "A police complaint has been registered against the so-called homecoming programme and the matter has reached the court. ... Let the court decide if it was a forceful conversion or not," Mr Shah said.
Mr Modi's agenda to push through reforms to boost economic growth has hit a roadblock in India's upper house of parliament, where opposition lawmakers have demanded that the prime minister make a statement on the contested conversions issue.
The Hindu nationalist leader has so far refrained from doing so, and has let his colleagues fend off criticism. "The BJP speaks with a forked tongue," national spokesman of the opposition Congress party, Sanjay Jha, told Reuters, accusing the BJP of using economic reform as a way to a camouflage its Hindu agenda.