Guest Post 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

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.