NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reform agenda suffered a setback on Monday as protests erupted in parliament and in the streets over a campaign by Hindu hardliners linked to his party to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.
Opposition members threw papers and swarmed to the centre of the upper house of parliament, forcing the suspension of the session and effectively preventing the government from tabling a bill to increase foreign participation in the insurance sector.
The long-pending insurance legislation to raise the cap on foreign investment to 49 percent from 26 percent, and another bill to replace a decree to overhaul the coal sector, were considered low-hanging fruits that Modi hoped to push through parliament's winter session, which ends on Tuesday.
But comments by the head of the right-wing Hindu group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that India was a "Hindu nation" provoked a storm of criticism, snuffing out any chance of opposition support for government business in the upper house of parliament, where Modi lacks a majority.
"This is an attempt to divide the society," Nitish Kumar, an opposition leader from the state of Bihar told hundreds of people at a protest in New Delhi, referring to religious conversions.
"The government is not capable of resolving the core issues of our country, so they want to divide the society and distract people."
Modi is facing a backlash for not doing enough to rein in hardline affiliate groups that have become emboldened in their pursuit of a Hindu-dominant agenda, threatening India's secular foundations, critics say.
Trouble erupted this month after a group of Muslims complained they had been tricked into attending a conversion ceremony by Hindu groups. A Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker of Modi's party had planned a mass conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, but that has been put off.
About a fifth of India's 1.2 billion people identify themselves as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism. Conversion is a sensitive issue with Hindu groups saying many poor Hindus were forced over the ages to give up their faith, or lured into Christianity and Islam.
On Monday, opposition Congress party leader Anand Sharma urged Modi to make clear where he stood on conversions.
Modi actively communicates via social media and addresses the nation every month on radio, but has not commented on conversions, letting colleagues tackle the criticism.