Credit Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press
NEW DELHI â Every other month or so, someone calls the Rev. Phil Oswald and asks if he would be willing to baptize Hindus so they can become Christians.
âThey always follow the same script,â said Mr. Oswald, the pastor of Delhi International Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational service heavy on guitars and jeans. âItâs obviously a setup.â
The Soviets famously used âhoney traps,â temptations of booze and beautiful women, to lure Westerners into compromising situations. For some Christians in India, there is a âJesus trapâ: temptations of soul-saving to lure visiting pastors and missionaries into conversions that could cause them to lose residency visas.
Mr. Oswald said he always referred such callers, whom he assumes to be Hindu nationalists, to native Indian pastors who cannot be deported, an offer that is invariably declined. Even so, Mr. Oswald, who is from the Midwest, said his visa applications had faced unusual delays.
Hindu nationalists here claim that Muslims and Christians have been forcing Hindus to convert to their religions for centuries. So there is deep sensitivity to proselytizing by non-Hindus, particularly foreigners. Visas for religious professionals are strictly limited, some missionaries are instructed not to proselytize openly and, now that a Hindu nationalist has become Indiaâs prime minister, hard-line Hindu groups have begun a long-dreamed campaign to claw back some of those conversion losses.
This month in Agra, nearly 200 Muslims were reported to have been converted en masse to Hinduism by an offshoot of the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that is the ideological wing of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party and that once employed the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The same group has announced plans to convert thousands of Christians to Hinduism on Christmas Day.
Some recent converts reported being tricked into the ceremonies with promises of economic benefits. But the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Mohan Bhagwat, has promised to press ahead with the conversions, which his group has called âhomecomings.â
âWe will bring back those who have lost their way,â Mr. Bhagwat said Saturday. âThey did not go on their own.â
About 80 percent of Indiaâs 1.2 billion people are Hindus, but nearly 15 percent are Muslims and most of the rest are Christian, Buddhist, Adivasi (indigenous tribes) or Zoroastrians, known as Parsees. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indiaâs first prime minister, made secularism a central part of his governing philosophy, but religious violence has convulsed India repeatedly, and religious identity often shapes voting patterns. Hindu groups accuse centrist parties of pandering to minorities to win the support of âvote banks.â
Opposition lawmakers, denouncing the Hindu conversions as divisive and politically motivated, have united to paralyze Indiaâs upper house of Parliament until Mr. Modi publicly condemns the conversions.
âThis is far too serious a national issue for anyone but the prime minister to address in Parliament,â Abhishek Singhvi, a spokesman for the Indian National Congress party, said in an interview.
With the parliamentary session scheduled to end this week, the paralysis has stymied Mr. Modiâs modest agenda of change, dealing a serious blow to efforts to revive Indiaâs stalled economy.
That Mr. Modi has refused to call for an end to the conversions despite the legislative paralysis has begun to worry political analysts here.
âThe P.M. must end this debate unequivocally and shift the focus back to governance,â The Times of India said in an editorial Tuesday.
In an interview, Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, noted derisively that Indiaâs previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had rarely spoken publicly at all.
âWe should leave it to the prime ministerâs discretion to choose the time, place and message that he believes are important to the country for him to address,â Mr. Kohli said of Mr. Modi.
Shekhar Gupta, a political commentator, said he was surprised that Mr. Modi had so far refused to denounce the conversions â a seemingly easy price to pay to get his legislative agenda moving.
âSo either the prime minister is not strong enough to stop these guys from doing these conversions, or he thinks like them,â Mr. Gupta said. âAnd I donât know which one of those options is worse.â
Mr. Modi was himself a divisive figure; when he was chief minister of Gujarat State, religious rioting there in 2002 left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims. But he came to national power promising to focus on Indiaâs economic development while moderating his Hindu nationalism. Even his critics have acknowledged that he has shown few signs since his election in May of being the religiously divisive figure they had predicted.
But hard-line Hindu groups, impatient with Mr. Modiâs refusal to champion their causes, have shaken off months of quiescence and begun to speak out. Some insist that they are doing so with Mr. Modiâs tacit approval.
âHow do you know that Mr. Modi is trying to stop reconversions?â Surendra Jain, a spokesman for the Vishva Hindu Parishad, another Hindu nationalist group, asked in an interview. âChristians and Muslims here are brothers and sisters of our blood. They were forced to convert either by allurement or fraud. If some people want to rectify the error of their ancestors, what is wrong with it?â
Members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad have promised that Hindu converts will be allowed to choose their caste or social class, an extraordinary offer that would seem to overturn thousands of years of a system in which birth determines caste.
On Sunday, about 30 Christians were converted to Hinduism in a four-hour ceremony conducted by a chapter of the Vishva Hindu Parishad in a small temple in a village near Kochi, on Indiaâs southern coast, an area where Christianity arrived early and is widespread.
Venkateswaran Narayanan, a top Vishva Hindu Parishad official in Kerala, the state where Kochi is, explained that the conversions resulted in part from a crisis in the state caused by âSemitic Abrahamic religious intolerance.â
âHindus are facing a lot of problems, and we are trying to address that,â Mr. Narayanan said in an interview.
But Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, said in an interview at his rectory that the recent conversions were unusual and divisive in a state in which different religions have long lived in harmony.
âWhy do they do it now, which they did not do one year back?â he asked.