Guest post by CHARU GUPTA
The synchronised vocabulary of anti-conversion by the BJP and that of reconversion by the VHP and Dharm Jagran Samiti, an RSS affiliate, reveals the intimate relationship between the two. Anti-conversion and reconversion are two sides of the same coin. Even though the Dharm Jagran Samiti dropped its plan to ‘reconvert’ 4000 Christians and 1000 Muslim families in Aligarh on 25 December, due to pressures from a parliament in session as well as other protests, the day has had strategic significance. Christmas Day has been given a different meaning by the Hindutva brigade — the birth anniversaries of Madan Mohan Malaviya, one of the stalwarts of the Hindu Mahasabha, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the eminent BJP leader. Equally critically, on 23 December 1926 Swami Shraddhanand, the leading ideologue of the shuddhi movement (purification; Hindu movement in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to reclaim those who had converted from Hinduism to other religions) was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic, and on 25 December, a condolence motion was moved at the Guawhati session of the Congress.
The twin strategies of anti-conversion and ghar wapsi have a long history and past, which saw its efflorescence in the shuddhi movement, but have become much more aggressive in the present context. As part of their community and nation making rhetoric, the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha had launched the programme of shuddhi on a large scale in Uttar Pradesh in 1923. Though Arya Samaj had stronger roots in Punjab, shuddhi movement was more effective in UP. Various scholars have pointed to the communal character of the movement. A note prepared by the criminal investigation department at that time stated that though the movement had older origins, ‘its application to mass rather than individual conversion gave it a special prominence’ in 1923. Shuddhi came to be touted as a movement to reclaim the ‘victims’ and protect the ‘faithful’. Reconversion attempts have since been a part of agenda of various Hindutva outfits, and the present assertions should be seen in that context. Today, organisations like the VHP and Dharm Jagran Samiti have acquired a new importance and are emboldened to not only challenge conversions in an organised manner, but also to simultaneously aggressively campaign for reconversion. Just as shuddhi became an instrument for Hindu communal mobilization in early twentieth century, ghar wapsi is fulfilling the same role today.
The combination of anti-conversion rhetoric with that of ghar wapsi powerfully invokes metaphors of exile and home. Ghar wapsi is flaunted as a return to the authentic origin, the starting point, the abode of birth. It produces and enforces notions of a primordial religious identity, whereby all and everyone are declared Hindus. Thus states Praveen Togadia of the VHP: ‘At a point of time, the entire world was Hindu. There were 700 crore Hindus, and now there are just 100 crore.’ The shift from the whole world to the Hindu nation is swift, as ghar wapsi denationalises Islam and Christianity, facilitating their ‘othering’. In the name of a home, a nation, a boundary, it adopts a language where all other religions are seen as anti-national, as falling in the domain of an exile. Anti-conversion combined with ghar wapsi thus signals for the Hindu Right a shift from anti-national to national, from exile to home, from forced to voluntary, from people to citizens, from false to truth, from constructed to original, from unnatural to natural, from outsider to insider. Since one is returning to one’s origins, all other ‘deviations’ are declared null and void. One of the leading lights of the Arya Samaj in UP in the 1920s and 30s, Ganga Prasad Upadhyay wrote Humare Bichhure Bhai (Our Lost Brothers) in 1923 in which it was claimed that the Malkana Rajputs of western UP, whom the Arya Samaj was desperately trying to ‘reconvert’, were returning to their roots, that they had lost their path in between, and Hinduism was reclaiming that loss. Thus he wrote: Pyare bhai hain Malkane, uchh vansh ke hain ujiyare, Arjun, Bhim, Karn ke pyare (Malkanas are our dear brothers. Luminaries of high birth, they are dear to Arjun, Bhim and Karn). In another Arya Samajist tract called Malkanon ki Pukar, published in Agra in 1924, written as if by a Malkana, a poem went: Hum shikha sutra ke dhari hain, Kshatriya dwijati kehlate hain, hum gau Brahman ke sevak hain, hum duniya ko dikhlate hain…. Shuddhi karwane se apni jo koi is dam chukega, wah bhrasht hamesha bana rahe, sansar usi ko thukega (We bear the top-knot and the sacred thread, we are known as twice-born Kshatriyas. We show the world that we are the devotees of cows and Brahmins…. Whoever will not perform shuddhi this time, will always remain corrupt and the world will condemn him). Urging the reconversion of Dalits, another reformist poem in 1933 said: Aapke bhai jo ban baithe hain Isai-Yaman, unko vaidik dharm ka amrit pilao Hinduon…. Kho chuke ho apni gaflat mein hazaron lal tum, ab luteron se na apna ghar lutao Hinduon (Your brothers who have become Christians-Muslims, Hindus, make them drink the nectar of Vedic religion…. Due to your negligence you have lost thousands of sons, now do not let the robbers steal from your home). The invocation of metaphors of enemies and robbers on the one hand and brothers, sons and home on the other has thus been a hallmark of such reconversion and anti-conversion campaigns. Ghar wapsi resonates with nostalgia – a homecoming, a cocoon, an insulated space that protect and shelters you by taking you to your supposed roots. It is indeed ironical that while Hinduism too has carried on conversions, it is shown as totally unacceptable by using the euphemism of reconversion. Through such an analogy, even while propagating conversion, the Hindu Right escapes its charge, and easily insists simultaneously on anti-conversion laws.
However, the claim of ‘origins’, of ‘home’ was powerfully challenged historically by various Dalit and anti-caste ideologues, like Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar, and in UP by Achutanand, Chandrikaprasad Jigyasu and Swami Bodhanand Mahasatveer. In various ways they rejected Vedic Hinduism, and constructed a pre-Aryan identity of Dalits as the original inhabitants – Adi Hindus – of India. They claimed that not only were they the original inhabitants, and thus had prior rights over its land and territory, but also that there was a glorious history of Adi Hindu monarchy without caste, which was destroyed by Brahmanical Hinduism. They further stated that Dalits had been conquered by upper caste Hindus through chicanery and cunningness. Achhutanand, the founder of the Adi Hindu movement in UP, in a stirring speech in the 1930s, abused Hindus as tyrants (zalims) and asserted that their religion was that of animals. Wrote Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu in his book Bharat ke Adi Nivasiyon ki Sabhyata (Civilization of India’s Original Inhabitants), published first in 1937: Adi-nivasi bandhu! Lijiye, yeh nij gauravmay itihaas; Arya-dwijon ne swarth-vivash ho, jise kar diya tha naash (Indigenous brother! imbibe your glorious history; which was destroyed by the twice born Aryans due to their selfish interests). Swami Bodhanand too penned his famous book Mool Bharatvasi aur Arya (Original Inhabitants of India and Aryans) in 1930. While examining adivasi conversions in Orissa, Biswamoy Pati has pointed out that we need to seriously question if they were ‘born as Hindus’. These put a serious question mark over the supposed primordial religious identity of India’s inhabitants.
Related to this is another paradox in the anti-conversion/reconversion rhetoric. Arguments of lure, force, fraudulence and material gains have been constantly made in anti-conversion laws and by the Hindu Right when opposing conversions. Reconversion, however, is claimed as a voluntary return, by choice. In the same breath, conversion is upheld as illegitimate in one case and legitimate in another, forcible in one case, voluntary in another. But how can a religion, which one is born in, without any choice in the matter, be regarded as voluntary? And how do we define force or material gains? If one is converting in the hope of a better life, education and dignity, material progress, what is wrong with that? Dilip Menon shows how ‘the attraction of the lower castes for Christianity in colonial India was partly prompted by the need to move away from the cycle of oppression and inequality and also because the religion allowed for their entry into a wider public sphere, as individuals’. Conversion has also been explained by historians like Gyan Pandey to refer to Dalit conversion to full formal citizenship. It also, according to him, meant a conversion to the ‘modern’, signified by a certain sensibility, particular kinds of dress and comportment, and particular rules of social and political engagement. Religious conversion may work and may not work for someone, but let anyone who is converting decide for herself/himself that. Moreover, if reconversion is indeed so ‘voluntary’, then why, as per a pamphlet of the VHP, does a karyakarta require Rs. 2 lakh per year to ‘work on a Christian’ and as much as Rs. 5 lakh for a ‘Muslim problem’? As Kumkum Sangari succinctly states, ‘The anti-conversion discourse teeters between an authenticated primordialism and an aggrandised voluntarism, and it oscillates between the two because neither can singly sustain a Hindutva agenda’.
The language of ghar wapsi is not motivated by a desire to promote spirituality and religious values, but by a strong anti-Christian and anti-Muslim overtone and passion. Charged with a moral and communal fervour, it adopts an unrestrained anti Christianity and anti Islamic polemic. Simultaneously, the reconversion campaign is characterised by a creed of violence and Hindu masculinity. During the heyday of shuddhi, a poem written in 1928 in a pamphlet titled Kya Swami Shraddhanand Apradhi The, read: Buzdili chorke maidan mein ana hoga, Hinduon ab tumhe kuch karke dikhana hoga…. Nasl viron ki ho viratva dikhana hoga. Vir ho dhir ho har baat mein zyada sabse, sangathan shuddhi se bal apna jatana hoga (Hindus, you must leave off cowardice and come to the field and do something. You are the descendants of the brave and you have to show your bravery. You are the strongest of all and you have to show your prowess through shuddhi and sangathan). Today, with a shift in power, the political energies of Hindutva have been harnessed for even a more militant and martial public expression. The ghar wapsi movement repeatedly asks Hindus to avenge supposed past humiliation and historical ‘wrongs’ of conversion, regain courage and become warriors of a proud Hindu race. Physical prowess is seen as a remedy for surrender, loss and defeat. Addressing the sant samagam called by the Dharm Jagran Manch of the RSS at Vaishali in Bihar, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath gave the mantra of ‘mala ke saath bhala’ (pray and fight) and shastra ke saath shaastra (weapons along with scriptures). While conversion from Hinduism is represented as a loss of power, weakness and misery, ghar wapsi is imagined as a reversal of this loss and a restoration of masculine power to Hindu men.
Numbers have been critical to the politics of Hindutva. Mass conversions have been regarded as not only challenging an established community’s assent to religious doctrines and practices, but also altering demographic equations and producing numerical imbalances. In this lament of constantly declining Hindu numbers, the twin devices of anti-conversion and reconversion are seen to increase Hindu numbers. Thus the RSS local unit in Aligarh has proudly claimed that it has carried out approximately 40,000 ‘reconversions’ in and around Aligarh. There are, however, various contradictions in such contentions. First, various statistical studies have debunked theories of declining Hindu numbers. Second, many tribal and Dalit groups have objected at various points of time to their accounting as Hindus. Third, Hindutva rhetoric conveniently includes Buddhists and Jains as part of Hinduism. Fourth, even if in some distant, remote future, Hindu numbers do decline, how is religious identity in any way going to alter our basic constitutional and democratic fabric? What is significant however is that how through a constant harping of declining numbers, a demographic majority can portray itself as an endangered minority. The number crunching politics of Hindutva is also seen as signalling unity and consolidation among a Hindu community and nation, brushing under the carpet caste hierarchies and tensions.
The twin strategies of anti-conversion/reconversion also harden religious identities and boundaries, while undermining syncretic cultural practices and religious pluralities in our everyday life. The leading historian Richard Eaton, who has extensively worked on conversions, has effectively shown that conversions here (as elsewhere too) do not signify a passive acceptance of a monolithic, outside essence. Rather, conversion to Islam and Christianity in India has entailed a creative and selective adaptation, and constant translation, whereby these religions have themselves been indigenised and ‘vernacularised’ according to people’s needs and desires. Christian and Islamic doctrines have interacted with Dalit and tribal cosmologies, and been moulded by them. There is no fixed or unchanging essence of any religion here. Conversions have often signified mobility, flexibility and plurality. Many in India carry within them hybrid religious identities, where burial practices, for example, coexist with Hindu marriage customs. Such pliable and ambiguous religious identities, however, are an anathema to Hindutva. Ghar wapsi is an attempt to bring to the Hindu fold communities that have had pronounced syncretic practices and plural religious customs. Conversions are important expedients to reject hierarchies and refigure boundaries and must continue for our religious freedom. Islam and Christianity have as much roots here as Hinduism, where each has been creatively moulded and indigenised (and rejected) by various communities. Those who have lived for centuries with syncretic religious practices – they too are as much at ‘home’ as any other.
Charu Gupta teaches History at Delhi University. A shorter version of this article has appeared in the Indian Express.