By Ram Puniyani
Propaganda around conversions has been one of the major political tools during last few decades. It was Niyogi Commission report which investigated the conversions in Adivasi areas in 1950s, then the Meenaxipuram conversions of Dalits into Islam, the and then the gruesome murder of Pastor Graham Stewart Stains on the charges that he was doing the conversion; are few amongst the big spectrum related to the phenomenon of conversions. As such the regular propaganda by communal forces that Muslim Kings converted people into Islam by sword has been made the part of ‘social common sense’ by now. On regular basis around Christmas time one saw the anti Christian violence in Adivasi areas a decade ago, and in that context rather than focusing on the violence against religious minorities, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a National debate on Conversions.
In the recent conversions to Hinduism in Agra (10 December 2014) nearly 350 pavement dwellers-rag pickers and other destitute sections were promised that if they participate in the religious function they will be given the ration card and BPL cards. This was done by the Bajrang Dal activist and the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti both outfits affiliated to RSS. The only difference is that this process has been called as Ghar Vapasi and not conversion. On one hand this is being projected as a great valorous achievement by the RSS leaders like Yogi Adiytnath, on the other it is being labeled as a master stroke by RSS by other RSS ideologues. According to one ideologue of RSS, they had been calling for a ban on conversions, which was being opposed by the secular elements and religious minorities. This conversion nay Ghar Vapasi will bring to fore the debate to bring in the strict law against any conversion. If, as reported, the conversion of 350 odd Muslims in Ved Nagar in Agra to Hinduism is the work of RSS, it is clear that the RSS has grown strategic, according to RSS ideologue.
As per this ideologue this move of RSS is a smart one too. It seems to have triggered a debate on conversions which it has been asking for decades but was evaded by its critics. While communal elements are crying hoarse that Meenaxipuram has been the act of conversions through petro dollars and the Christian missionaries are doing conversion though foreign money, the truth of the matter is somewhat different. Meenaxipuram conversion was triggered by humiliation of the dalit youth by the upper caste. While the propaganda that Christian missionaries are doing forcible conversions is on the peak the fact is that no evidence of the application of force has been generally reported. It is also true that while some sects of Christian do claim that they are converting; the majority sects affirm that when the conversion is sought by someone in the society and only under that voluntary request the conversion if at all takes place. Interestingly as many people have started believing that the missionaries are converting the population of Christians has been shown a marginal decline during last few decades as per census figures (1971-2.60, 1982-2.44. 1991-2.34, 2001-2.30 and probably 2.20 in 2011) The Wadhwa Commission, which was appointed by the then home minister L.K.Advani in the after math of the burning of Pastor Stains points out that Pastor was not involved in the work of conversions and that in Keonjhar in Manoharpur of Orissa, the percentage of Christians has shown fair stability, or an statistical insignificant rise in the percentage of Christian population during the time Pastor Stains was working there.
How have conversion taken place in India? We can examine this in two stages. In medieval period as far as conversion to Islam is concerned it took place mainly due to the caste oppression, as pointed out by Swami Vivekananda “Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammadens? It is nonsense to say that they were converted by the sword. It was to gain liberty from Zamindars and Priests…..” (Collected Works – Vol. 8 – Page 330). Surely a small section did convert to Islam due to anticipation for reward by Muslim kings, a smaller section due to fear and a substantial chunk due to the social interaction as seen in the Muslims of Malabar coast and the Muslims of Mewat. Major conversion to Islam during medieval time was due to the influence of Sufi saints, at whose Dargaha the untouchables could also visit. Since even today one fourth of the population holds to the norms of untouchablity, it is not surprising that some dominated castes do keep deciding to leave the fold of Hinduism, as was proclaimed by Dr. Ambedkar, who left Hinduism with proclamation that ‘I was born a Hindu; that was not in my hands, but I will not die a Hindu.”
The conversions to Christianity did not begin with the coming of British as propagated by some. Christianity is centuries old, entering India with the coming of St Thomas in the first century. Some doubt this version and hold that Christianity came here in fifth century. The Christian missionaries have been working here in the neglected Adivasi areas providing the health and educational services, the appeal of which prompted many an Adivasis-Dalits to embrace this religion. It is only from last six decades that communal forces have been showing their discomfort of Missionaries working in the Adivasi-village areas violence has been more in those areas. Not to forget here is the point that many a Christian institutions are located in cities, where all sections of society vie to send their children. One can also concede that a few of these missions may be aiming for conversions through their prayer and healing services. The question of allurement and fraud, if at all, may be a small component of the phenomenon of conversion to Christianity. Most of the attacks and accusations which took place against Christian missionaries were when they were holding prayer meetings. The money they receive comes through proper FCRA channel, and many a NGOs including the organizations like RSS also receive foreign funds to be sure.
Now the assertion is that what RSS affiliates do is a Ghar vapasi! They claim so many things which are a pure political concoction. The voluntary conversions have very much been a part of caste ridden Indian society. It is another matter that even the Christian and Muslim communities could not remain free from this caste virus, but the hope of the dominated castes to get social justice has played a major role in changing one’s faith. The RSS claim that the ancestors of all these converts are Hindus has no relevance in the debate. How is ancestry important in one’s faith and the citizenship today? Do we have to trace our ancestry to decide today’s faith? Where will this lead us? The theory of evolution apart the latest DNA studies show that human’s beginning is from South Africa. The coming of Aryans to India from Arctic zone (Lokmanya Tilak ) to that Aryans were original inhabitants of India is a perpetual debate, with more heat than light in it.
What was the religion of Nomads-Pagans? Some social scientists call it Indigenous culture, rather than religion for the phenomenon which was and is practiced by indigenous (Adivasi) people all over the World. Society is always changing. As caste system has been the central part of religion in India many of the dominated castes regularly kept leaving Hinduism to opt for other religions, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. People felt that they are not getting equality and so kept leaving the Hindu fold and embracing other religions. After Lord Buddha’s teachings a large chunk of people became Buddhists in the sub continent. It is another matter that later in the Brahminical reaction, Buddhism was wiped out from here. Many felt that the missions are doing service to their community so they changed their faith.
The problem, which RSS projects is due to its being hung up to the values and system of past; pastoral, agricultural-feudal societies. The changes in social system accompany the changes in systems of production and education in particular; are totally missing in its world view. India came into being through the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, who could unite the people of all religions as he treated all religions on equal ground. For him, there is no distinction between foreign and Native religions. Three types of Nationalisms competed with each their during freedom movement. On one hand was the concept of Indian Nationalism and the accompanying concept of ‘India as a nation in the making’, this is what was followed by most of the people. The other was Muslim Nationalism, which located its beginning from the time of Muhammad bin Kasim’s victory in Sindh in eight century. And the third one was Hindu nationalism, ‘we are a Hindu nation from times immemorial’, held by the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. Both these latter nationalisms derived their legitimacy from identity of religion had miniscule social support.
Unfortunately Gandhi is quoted extensively by Right wing forces to oppose conversions; but his quotes which are taken support are fragments of what he said. His major quote on conversion is from collected works, Volume XLVI p. 27-28. In an interview dated 22nd March 1931, given to The Hindu, Gandhi apparently stated that “if in self governing India, missionaries kept ‘proselytizing’ by means of medical aid, education etc., I would certainly ask them to withdraw. Every nation’s religion is as good as any other. Certainly India’s religions are adequate for her people. We need no converting spirituality.” This is the first part of the quote and the lines that follow give the totally opposite idea, the ideas, which Gandhi held. Gandhi goes on to write, “This is what the reporter has put in my mouth… All that I can say is that it is a travesty of what I have always said and held.” He goes on to explain, “I am, then, not against conversion. But I am against the modern methods of it. Conversions nowadays have become a matter of business, like any other… Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.” And then he goes on to list the faiths of India, “Apart from Christianity and Judaism, Hinduism and its offshoots, Islam and Zoroastrianism are living faiths.”
As Gandhi opposed the divisive agenda of communal forces, which were using identity of religions for political purpose, Gandhi in contrast was harping on ‘morality’ of religions to unite the people. So while he was leading the anti colonial struggle the communalists were spitting fire against the ‘other community’ and ‘Shuddhi’ (Arya Samaj) and Tanjim (Tablighi Jammat) was part of their political agenda in the early part of twentieth century. The Hindu religion is not a prophet based religion, so the concept of conversion is not there. In most prophet based religions the call for spreading the divine word is there. So earlier Arya Samaj coined the word Shuddhi, which was for forcible conversion into Hinduism. RSS improvised on that and has coined the word Ghar Vapasi as a clever move to hide its ‘forcible conversion drive’. Its claim that it is undertaking Ghar vapasi to bring the religious minorities in the mainstream is again a hoax as minorities had been equal participants in the movement for India’s freedom, a struggle from which RSS remained aloof, barring one exception. To claim that adivasis are Hindus, is again does not hold water as Adivasis are animists, believing in nature worship, and in the spirit of their ancestors and spirit of Nature. All over the World indigenous people hold similar belief and have similar practice. This is unlike Hinduism where Gita, Ram and Acharya are the core part of it belief today.
The central point is that RSS does not recognize Indian nationalism and holds to Hindu nationalism so the whole maneuver for this ‘forcible conversion’ is being passed off as ‘Ghar Vapasi’ while dubbing other conversions as forcible. Rather than recognizing the qualitative change in the formation of India as the nation state, it is stuck to the pastoral-feudal-preindustrial society with the values of caste and gender hierarchy. The ‘Ghar vapsi’ is being planned at larger scales. And an intimidating and fraudulent atmosphere is being created to execute the forcible conversions. This is a frightening message to religious minorities. This is a clever manipulation of political power to violate the norms of Indian constitution.
Then how do we distinguish between a forcible conversion and adoption of a new religion. In the present scheme of things if one leaves Hindu fold to embrace Buddhism-Jainism-Sikhism, it is OK, as they are ‘Indian religions. For communalists problem seems to be only with Islam and Christianity! The basic shrewdness is to call religions as national or foreign. As such religions are basically universal not bound by national boundaries.
Constituent Assembly had discussed this thread bare and so the right to practice and propagate one’s religion is very much there. In the debate the word used is ‘converting’ others. Where is the place for people volunteering and adopting another religion, like Ambedkar and so many others? In a way it is a way to undermine the conscience of people that somebody is converting them. Where is the place for choice of one’s religion in a democratic society believing in ‘freedom of religion and conscience’?
With RSS plans for a bigger conversion nay Ghar vapasi in Aligarh this Christmas (2014) the attempt to polarize the society are being taken to a higher pitch. The heroes of RSS parivar like Yogi Adityanath are saying that those being subjected to ghar vapasi will be given the Gotra and caste from which they converted! So come what may the caste structure and rigidities remain and thrive. That’s what the agenda of nationalism in the name of Hinduism is!
Do we need laws to ban conversions? We have laws to punish those who indulge in force, fraud and allurement. What we need is to distinguish between voluntary conversion and forced one’s. Ghar Vapasi is a shrewd name for forcible conversions. So what we need is the political and moral will to promote freedom of religion and punish the guilty, using illegal means to achieve the change of faith. The so called ‘Freedom of Religion’ bills are there not to provide freedom of conscience but to curb the same by legal means.