India First and the BJP anti-conversion platform: Goldie Osuri

Guest Post by GOLDIE OSURI

We seem to live in an age where paradoxes become parodic simplifications in the seemingly global race to support all manner of fascist majoritarian nationalisms. I recently saw a youtube video, where P.P. Hegde of the NaMo Brigade linked the meaning of Namo Namaha—the letting go of ego in meditation—to the image of a giant saffron-vested image of Narendra Modi.

Namo Namaha. Literally, not-me, not my ego-self. Linked to a giant PR machine promoting an individual, the face of Hindutva fascism, nothing but ego. The lack of an ironic sensibility in such campaigns is perhaps sadly characteristic of our time.

Similarly anti-conversion campaigns targeting Christians seem paradoxical and parodic in their demand for Acts of Religious Freedom which literally entail religious unfreedom. Recently, the BJP leader of Andhra Pradesh, Venkaiah Naidu stated that the ‘BJP will bring an anti-conversion law to ban religious conversions in the country if it is voted to power in 2014 General Elections’. 

In Gujarat, the Modi regime, which effectively presided over the pogroms against Muslims in 2002, also passed the anti-Christian Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act (2003), a notch that bolsters its anti-minority credentials. It is also worth it to remember that the so-called national conversation about conversion was initiated by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the 1990s. That call for conversation was an incitement to violence. The 1999 Human Rights Watch report correlated BJP electoral victory in Gujarat in 1998 with the violence against tribal Christians in that state by Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and the RSS. In fact, the Human Rights Watch report states that the attacks against Christians across the country had increased significantly since the BJP’s Central Government electoral victory.

A decade later and anti-conversion laws have been passed in states such as Chattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006), and Rajasthan (2008).  This is a consequence of the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism since the 1990s. The 2006 Himachal Pradesh anti-conversion law was a Congress initiative. These ‘Freedom of Religion’ Acts suggest the protection of religious freedom by checking conversions by force or fraudulence, and target conversions to Christianity. But as many human rights organizations and scholars have pointed out, anti-conversion campaigns and laws have less to do with fraud and more to do with violence against Christians. While this violence gained media attention in December 2007 and in August/September 2008 in the states of Orissa and Karnataka, it continues to escalate and make the news intermittently in other states.

A brief glimpse into the history of anti-conversion laws shows its caste-based anti-tribal, anti-Dalit logic. Pre-independence anti-conversion acts include the Raigarh State Conversion Act of 1936, the Patna Freedom of Religion Act of 1942, the Sarguja State Apostasy Act 1945 and the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act of 1946. Significantly, these acts were passed by the princely states in the face of challenges to zamindars from tribal groups. In present day Jharkhand (then Chotanagpur) as elsewhere, the 1793 East India Company’s Permanent Settlement Act had resulted in the dispossession of those deemed tenants by giving landlords the power to further exploit, harass, even evict mostly tribal communities such as the Munda and Oraon often from their own lands. Some missionaries were able to act as advocates in courts for those being exploited by landlords. It is precisely to stop this challenge to zamindari exploitation that the Raigarh Anti-Conversion Act was passed in 1936.  As activists such as Rajendra Sail have pointed out, the upper-caste zamindars had no problem ‘westernizing’ by having their children tutored by missionaries, for example. The objection to conversion had more to do with the challenge presented by tribal and Dalit access to education and/or legal advocacy pertaining to the struggle over land.

In the immediate post-independence years, the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh passed anti-conversion laws in 1967, 1968 and 1978.  It is important to note that Hindutva outfits spearheaded campaigns for these laws. These laws garnered their legitimacy from the infamous Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee (1956) or the Niyogi report commissioned by the state of Madhya Pradesh after claims from the ex-rulers of princely states and the RSS about Christian conversions by fraud, which apparently posed a threat to public order. Public order or even immorality was attributed to missionaries rather than to Hindutva organisations who were responsible for instigating violence against Christians. Evidence of this responsibility can be found in Prime Minister Nehru’s 17 October, 1952 letter to his chief ministers to clamp down on the harassment of Christians. Currently, new legislation in Madhya Pradesh, which awaits the governor’s signature, rules that both ministers and converts need to obtain permission from authorities for a month in advance. Failure to comply would result in fines and jail terms of up to three years, or four in the case of minors, women, or Dalits and members of tribal communities. This historical lens serves to demonstrate how Hindutva harassment appears to have gained greater ground in recent years, and is the major threat not only to public order but to religious freedom.

A contender now for the post of Prime Minister of India, Modi has put forward the unimaginative slogan ‘India First’ as his definition of Indian secularism. Unimaginative it might be, but the slogan byte aims to legitimate an unmistakeably shifting discourse of Indian secularism to the right. We could read this phrase as Modi attempting to transcend his Hindu nationalist credentials—i.e., he will put India first and we will witness a receding sectarian past. Or we could read this as dog whistle politics— ‘India First’ is about consolidating a Hindutva vision of India, nationally. This could be Modi’s attempt to reassure his Hindu nationalist constituency and simultaneously appear to be a secularist. The question is, why would any definition of Indian secularism have to make an assumption—after all secularism is about religious pluralism or co-existence in India and this is about putting India first–an assertion in the first place?

The answer lies in the fact that Hindu nationalism is the major threat to India’s secularism. This is obvious enough. But it is a point worth reiterating in relation to a discussion of secularism. There are two paths that the relationship between religion and politics has taken in India: the non-modern (as scholar Ashis Nandy calls it) Gandhian model of tolerance and co-existence between religious communities, and a Nehruvian secularism which emphasised minority rights. Neither of these models espoused the church/state separation that secularism connotes in the West; though this continually blurring distinction in the West too is now a subject of study, postsecularism. Postsecularism is the idea that secularism as defined in the West has never quite witnessed a disentanglement of religion and politics. Indeed, debates within postsecularism focus on the manner in which majoritarian norms about religious identities in a nation often dictate how religion is governed or legislated within that nation. In India, the problem with the ‘non-modern’ Gandhian discourse of co-existence and Nehruvian secularism is that both strains approached secularism through the lens of India as a largely Hindu country. In other words, what had been left intact in these visions is a majoritarian norm which is easily translatable by Hindu nationalists into a right-wing discourse of secularism which depends not on religious pluralism but a subordinate, second-class status for Muslims and Christians.

Both Gandhian and Nehruvian models for religious co-existence have been tested severely since the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s. It is no accident that scholarship on Indian secularism has burgeoned since. Holding India’s secularism to account with governmental authorities has become a full-time job for religious minority and secular left activist organisations. Hindu nationalist incitement of and violence against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians depends on the majoritarian norm of India as a Hindu country. Hindutva’s Hinduism is, of course, nationalism rather than Hinduism. But it is this majoritarian assumption that has been used to sketch out a right-wing Hindutva notion of secularism, an unprincipled one. This is a secularism concerned with the subordination of non-Hindu communities and not with minority rights. The horrific state-directed pogroms in Godhra against Muslims do not need to be rehearsed here. They are easily found by following reports on the survivors by many organisations such as Communalism Combat, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and Human Rights Watch. And yes, there has been considerable violence against Christian communities under the banner of anti-conversion campaigns. Furthermore, the forced conversions of tribal and Dalit Christians back to Hinduism, chronicled by nine human rights organisations in the report From Kandamal to Karavali,  are not deemed conversion by an anti-conversion law. This is another parodic paradox of anti-conversion laws.

If we place Modi’s definition of secularism against this record of the Sangh Parivar organisations, the slogan India First reveals its ‘dog whistle politics’, that is, a political message employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.

India First is India as Hindutva Nation First – this is the slogan that the world and those Indians willing to vote for him must hear.

Dr. Goldie Osuri is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She is author of Religious Freedom in India: Sovereignty and (Anti) Conversion (Routledge, 2013).

11 thoughts on “India First and the BJP anti-conversion platform: Goldie Osuri”

  1. What we need in India is not Religious Freedom but Freedom from Religions. The equality in Christianity and Islam are just myths. Had it been so, there would not have been a single dalit/lower castes in UP and surrounding areas ruled by the Muslim Kings for more than 600 years and in Kerala where the Missionaries were very active.


  2. Conversions by material allurements, intimidation, fraud, blackmail or otherwise by criminal force are ultravires of the Constitution of India. Conversions have to be strictly voluntary. No religionist has right to seek opportunity to convert rival religionists except provided for in the Constitution of India.


    1. Inducing/coercing conversion is bad. But preventing people from converting their religion is, as explained in the article, a way to persecute not help. If help was what these lawmakers meant to do, they’d be addressing the needs of the minority communites and actually giving them a reason to not be swayed by incentives. Or protecting them from coercion. But that’s not what they’re doing, because helping minorities is not their aim.


  3. This article omits how the Supreme Court has dealt with such laws and the interpretation of freedom of religion. Such laws are not unique to India. Right to propagate religion does not include the right to convert- what is wrong with such an interpretation of the right to freedom of religion. In fact the Supreme Court has upheld such laws. Mahatma Gandhi was against religious conversion. Why should indigenous people be converted into any organized religion. Opposing Hindutva need not mean that one should support anything and everything that supporters of Hindutva oppose. Do scholars like Ashis Nandy really support inducing conversion or measures to woo indigenous communities to give up their religion and culture in favor of other religion.The right position should be hands off policy for all religions and attempts to induce conversion, forcing conversion and offering benefits,providing incentives should be banned. Let all cultures and communities of faith co-exist without the threat of conversions. Right to change ones faith should be a fundamental right but not the right to convert a person , in the name of freedom of religion. For Gandhi all religions are equal and hence he abhorred the idea of converting a person into another religion. If we take the position that indigenous cultures and communities should survive without getting assimilated or converted into any organized faith or major religion we should oppose the right to convert as a fundamental right. This is totally different from supporting hindu nationalism or hindutva.


    1. You realize that your entire argument takes a rather patronizing note towards “indigenous people” right?
      You’re assuming that they’re all being brainwashed or coerced into converting their religion. That they don’t have the capacity to recognize what’s best for them.
      I mean don’t get me wrong, I find the smug “we’re better” nature that motivates missionaries completely — well, smug and completely against the love-and-acceptance message they’re supposed to spread.

      But my point is, maybe the people converting actually have a reason to convert. Maybe they’re sick of being persecuted by the so-called “upper class” and not getting any of the “benefits” they were promised to alleviate their lot. Either way, it’s their right to be able to practice the religion they wish to. And if they don’t want to practice the one they were born into then they should have the right to convert themselves without others questioning their judgement as though they were somehow “lesser” & couldn’t possibly know their own mind.

      Again, I agree with you that inducing conversion is bad. But preventing people from being converted because Gandhi thought all religions were the same (they’re not, some are more batshit crazy than others) is, as explained in the article, a way to persecute not help. In fact, if help was what they meant to do, they’d be addressing the needs of the minority communites and actually giving them a reason to not be swayed by incentives. Or protecting them from coercion. But that’s not what they’re doing, because helping minorities was never the aim.


  4. A quick response for the above comments from the author: Freedom from religion remains a rationalist dream, itself a product of European Enlightenment. And freedom from religion is not a guarantee of freedom from oppression. Dalit or tribal unfreedom is not due to ‘religion’ alone, though religious practices are often used as justification for oppression. In fact this is the argument I’ve made in the above article. The struggle in the case I mentioned above was over land and contestation of upper-caste power.

    Furthermore, I have not suggested that there aren’t any hierarchies in Islam and Christianity. Hierarchies survive or erode dependent on local organisations and political will. The article above is about the hierarchical and sometimes violent ways in which majoritarian nationalisms treat religious minorities. The idea that conversion is due to material or any other inducements is often Hindutva propaganda. And, the Orissa case demonstrates that it is Sangh Parivar activists who have been converting tribal populations or Christians and Muslims to a Hindutva brand of Hinduism through their tactics of intimidation. It is a bit naive, in such a context, to suggest that banning conversions means that all communities will co-exist peacefully or that indigenous cultures will survive only if conversion is banned. South Asian religiosity has often been a fluid affair, and a legal ban in favour of a majoritarian group (so-called reconversions to Hinduism are not subject to the law) is not going to promote peaceful co-existence.

    And lastly, interpretations of law politicised affairs. If the difference between the right to propagate and the right to convert another person is judged by a local magistrate who also happens to be a Hindutvawadi, we leave ourselves open to the abuse of power and state complicity in discrimination and violence.


  5. Na Mo stands for Na-rendra Mo-di so its quiet clear that the hindutva factor is always the top agenda of rss-bjp camp.religious minorities were or are or will never be safe unless all become hindu and those who resist will face persecution or subordination and slavery life.


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