'When Hindus converted through inducements there was no hue and cry, but when reconversions took place, everyone cried foul. If re-conversions are bad, so are conversions.'
'Our government is not getting involved either in conversions or re-conversions. The BJP has nothing to do with it.'
Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu in a candid interview with Rediff.com contributing correspondent Rashme Sehgal.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu's suggestion in Parliament earlier this month that Delhi would have been better served being called Indraprastha or Hastinapur did not go down well with Delhites.
Naidu's words raised alarm bells especially since he also wears the hat of minister of urban development, thereby helping delineate the dominant agenda in the way our cities will develop.
Conservationists accused him of introducing another round of 'saffronisation' in trying to rename the capital city. Naidu later clarified that he was 'proposing anything.'
But when Naidu speaks on the controversial issue of religious conversions his voice carries much more authority. "There is no threat to religious freedom. There is no communal tension anywhere," Naidu states repeatedly, insisting that the present government remains focused on its development agenda.
"Everyone has the right to embrace the faith of his choice, but there should not be any allurements or force. When Hindus converted through inducements there was no hue and cry, but when re-conversions took place, everyone cried foul," he says. "If re-conversions are bad, so are conversions."
The minister is of the view that religious conversions are a matter of historical record and that way back in 1923, the Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj had organised a programme to allow those who had converted to return to Hinduism.
When asked whether the government and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had different views on the issue of conversions, the minister says, "There is no conflict between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS over the issue of religious conversions."
"RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said the people who were converted have the right to be re-converted. If conversions are taking place in Uttar Pradesh, the superintendent of police and district magistrate are there to help ensure law and order," Naidu says, claiming the Opposition parties are stuck in one refrain whereas "we are ready to discuss every issue. If you feel state government laws are not effective, then there is need to have an all-India law."
Naidu has informed Parliament that he is in favour of an anti-conversion law in all the states and also at the Centre.
Some state governments including Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh already have anti-conversion laws in place. But he agreed that a central law could only be brought about if a broad consensus emerged amongst all the parties.
"Our government is not getting involved either in conversions or re-conversions. The BJP has nothing to do with it. Some individuals may take part because of their belief, but one cannot find fault with the government on this issue," Naidu adds, insisting that with Parliament's winter session ending on Tuesday, December 23, what was more important was to pass the Insurance Bill, the Coal Mines National Amendment Bill, the Anti-Hijacking of Aircraft Bill and the Delhi Special Law Enactment Bill.
Naidu asks the Opposition not to stall Parliament since important bills need to be passed, especially the Delhi Special Law Enactment Bill which is due to expire on January 31. "If the bill is not passed, then thousands of persons will be evicted and their premises sealed," he points out.
The minister is equally forceful in dismissing the Opposition attack on the government's inability to handle the black money issue.
"The Congress keeps asking us -- 'What happened on the black money issue?'... But unlike them, we deliver on what we promise. In 50 years of their rule, the Congress couldn't bring back black money. We are taking concrete steps in that direction," Naidu insists.
"Our government is about six months old and even a child takes nine months to be born," he says. "We are taking all possible steps to improve the lives of the people."
Naidu refers to how the Supreme Court has constituted a Special Investigation team with two former Supreme Court judges M B Shah and Arijit Pasayat as its chairman and vice-chairman to look into the black money issue.
In its recent report the SIT stated that it had traced Rs 4,479 crore (Rs 44.79 billion) held by Indians in a Swiss bank while over Rs 14,958 crore (Rs 149.58 billion) of black money is held within India itself.
Naidu is also forceful on the issue of the development of the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, insisting that, "There is no question of creating apprehensions among people, particularly in the case of Hyderabad which has people from all parts of the country living in harmony. We are one nation and one people and nobody should try and provoke regional feelings."
"Division of employees will be done strictly as per established procedures," Naidu, a Telugu speaker says. "Guidelines in this regard have been drawn and necessary orders will be issued."
"Telangana became a reality only because of the BJP," he claims, adding, "The Congress was forced into conceding the statehood demand only out of fear of the Modi wave because we had always supported Telangana in principle and had promised to deliver the new state if we came to power. It was to pre-empt that that the Congress carved out the new state."
It is on the subject of smart cities that the minister is at his most eloquent. The Modi government has announced the building of 100 world-class cities that will transform the lives of those living in them.
"Smart cities will help improve the quality of urban life by providing regular water and power supply, easy mobility, complete sanitation and affordable health care and education," he declares.
Elaborating how such an ambitious project will become a reality, Naidu says a public private partnership model would help fructify such a scheme. His ministry had been studying various smart city models across the world including Singapore, Barcelona and Yokohama.
"We can draw from the experiences of others and leapfrog into addressing the challenges of urbanisation."
Naidu does concede that India-specific models have to be evolved to build these cities.
The ministry of urban development had in a concept note estimated that these cities would require an annual investment of a minimum of Rs 35,000 crore (Rs 350 billion) per annum. There is a question mark about how such money will be raised, but on one issue there is clarity.
The government does not plan to build new cities as was the case with Chandigarh built during Jawaharlal Nehru's time. Rather, the government will aim to develop satellite cities around mega cities like New Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai.
For the present, Naidu's ministry aims to improve 12 heritage cities: Ajmer, Amritsar, Badami, Dwarka, Gaya, Mathura, Puri, Varanasi, Vellankani and Warangal.
"The future development of any city must take into consideration its nature, history and cultural activity," says Naidu, "thereby capturing its unique heritage."
What needs to be developed, he says, is the physical, institutional, economic and social infrastructure of these cities. "These guidelines are essential," he says, "to renew and revitalise the soul of our cities."
Image: The controversial conversions in Agra where poor Muslims were 'reconverted' into Hinduism.