India's ruling party MP says Hindu women must have four children to protect religion

Indian Hindu devotees offer prayers on the banks of the Yamuna river as the landmark Taj Mahal monument is seen in the background during daybreak in Agra on Oct 30, 2014. A lawmaker from India's ruling party has called for Hindu women to have at
Indian Hindu devotees offer prayers on the banks of the Yamuna river as the landmark Taj Mahal monument is seen in the background during daybreak in Agra on Oct 30, 2014. A lawmaker from India's ruling party has called for Hindu women to have at least four children to "protect" their religion, sparking calls for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in his hardline supporters. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A lawmaker from India's ruling party has called for Hindu women to have at least four children to "protect" their religion, sparking calls for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in his hardline supporters.

Mr Sakshi Maharaj, who represents a seat in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said in a speech on Tuesday that Hindus should see it as their duty to have large families. "The time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect the Hindu religion," Mr Maharaj said at a religious congregation in the city of Meerut.

Mr Maharaj's remarks sparked a backlash on social media, with his name trending on Twitter while political opponents demanded an explanation from Mr Modi, who has a reputation as an unashamed Hindu nationalist. "Why has the Prime Minister maintained silence even for 24 hours? Is this the new population policy of India? The country wants to know, the nation wants an answer," said Mr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior figure in the former ruling Congress party.

Mr Modi also came under fire last month for rejecting calls to sack another BJP lawmaker who told a campaign rally crowd to decide whether they wanted a government run by "the children of (Hindu god) Ram or the children of bastards".

In his speech, Mr Maharaj went on to support a recent spate of 're-conversions' to Hinduism, an issue that paralysed Parliament last month and stalled the right-wing government's economic reforms agenda.

Religious groups and political opponents have accused radical organisations linked to the BJP of forcing or enticing religious minorities to convert to Hinduism.

While Hindus account for more than 80 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population, the country is officially secular and is home to sizeable numbers of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.

India's birth rate has declined dramatically in the last two decades due in part to rising female literacy, according to a government study published last month.

The Total Fertility Rate - the number of children the average woman will have in her lifetime based on current trends - fell to 2.3 in 2013 from 3.6 in 1991.

Mr Maharaj's latest comments came barely a month after he stirred controversy by calling independence hero Mahatma Gandhi's assassin a "patriot".