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Religion in India bubbles over into politics

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In small-town northern India, Muslims are offered food and money to convert to Hinduism. If that doesn't suffice, they say they're threatened. Across the country, the Christmas holiday is canceled for hundreds of government servants who spend the day publicly extolling the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Powerful Hindu nationalist leaders - some with close ties to Modi's government - say they intend to ensure India becomes a completely Hindu nation. But Modi himself? He has remained silent as nationalist demands have bubbled over into day-to-day politics, and amid growing fears among minority religious groups of creeping efforts to shunt them aside. "We told him we feel insecure and fearful," said the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic priest who was in a delegation of religious leaders who met a few days ago with Modi. "We told him, 'If there were just two words from your side, prime minister, we would feel so much better.'" But according to Emmanuel, Modi dismissed the fears as media exaggeration and told the group it wasn't his role to weigh in on every issue. A largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character, India has a sizable Muslim minority, a small Christian community and even smaller pockets of other religions from Judaism to Zoroastrianism. It's a country where barely 2 percent of people celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but where the day has long been set aside by families and friends - no matter their religion - for eating, drinking and gift-giving. It has been a day off from school and work as long as anyone can remember. So when a top Modi official suggested that students come in on Christmas for lessons on "Good Governance" - a key Modi platform - anger welled up quickly. While that plan was quietly shelved, hundreds of civil servants held high-profile activities across the country on Dec. 25 to herald Modi's governance policies. If there was no outright anti-Christian message in these gatherings, Emmanuel says the subtext was loud and clear. "It's not merely undermining the festival of Christmas, but it is trying to segregate a community and its festival," he said. Nonsense, said Tarun Vijay, a writer, longtime supporter of Hindu causes and member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The government activities on Christmas, he insisted, were to honor the birthday of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last BJP prime minister. "Was it his mistake being born on 25th December?" he asked. "Is it sacrilegious for us to celebrate his birthday on 25th December?" Instead, Vijay accuses some of Modi's opponents of politicizing Christmas, calling them "hate groups." "These are the people who are doing harm to Christianity," he said. The rancor is rarely just about God. Instead, it's a complex interplay of religion and politics, as the dreams of Hindu nationalist voters combine with the after-effects of Modi's sweeping electoral victory earlier this year. Modi was catapulted to power on promises to develop India's economy and root out the corruption and incompetence that had crippled the previous government. But he had launched his political career in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu group that combines religious education with self-defense exercises, and the parent organization of the ruling party. The RSS has long been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims. While Modi played down religious issues during the campaign, wary of alienating voters with his and his party's reputations for Hindu nationalism, nationalist voters turned out for him in droves. So when Modi was elected, nationalist leaders who had spent years in India's political wilderness began pressing the government to adopt its agenda. Just how much Modi actually supports that sprawling agenda - which includes everything from demands to rewrite school textbooks to, at the most extreme end, the expulsion of non-Hindus from India - remains unclear. Certainly, he is sympathetic to parts of it. In an October speech to medical professionals, for example, Modi traced parts of modern medicine back to ancient India, noting that Ganesh - the Hindu god with the head of an elephant but the body of a person - is proof that plastic surgery began in India. "We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point in time," he said. India, with its population of some 1.3 billion, is about 81 percent Hindu, 13 percent Muslim and a little over 2 percent Christian. The Muslim community, in particular, has long feared Modi. In 2002, when he was the top official in the western state of Gujarat, anti-Muslim riots ripped through the region, killing at least 1,000 people. Muslim leaders and human rights groups said Modi did little to stop the violence, a charge he denies. India's Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him for the violence. In the early months of Modi's tenure as prime minister, religion rarely intruded into politics. But in early December, right-wing Hindu groups allied with the BJP conducted a series of ceremonies to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. The events are called "homecomings," with organizers saying they were reconverting people whose ancestors had once been Hindu. Some of the Muslims, though, later said they'd either been paid to convert or threatened with violence if they did not. Quickly, the simmering religious issues boiled over into Parliament, with opposition lawmakers all but shutting down the legislature over charges that the prime minister had done little to stop the ceremonies. A few days later, the government's Christmas plans came into focus. Amid the political fracas, major economic legislation stopped cold. That has alienated many who supported Modi for his economic agenda, and who worry that jobs and development will be pushed aside by the demands of the Hindu right. "The 'cultural right' is too extreme for the middle-of-the-road voter," Gurcharan Das, a writer and former businessman, wrote in Monday's Times of India. "Modi has his work cut out - he must assuage the anxieties of the cultural extremists while pursuing his jobs agenda."--AP