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Jayalalithaa’s anti-conversion gimmick

Tamil Nadu government has passed a legislation banning conversions by force, fraud or allurement. Earlier Orissa Government had also passed a legislation on similar lines and a bill by Anant Geete of Shiv Sena is pending in parliament for discussion. This bill calls for a ban on conversions and also equates free education with "allurement". As per these proposals, prior permission/intimation will be needed. Authorities will sit in judgement over whether the conversion is legal or not. In a way, most of these legislations violate the fundamental rights of citizens, the right to personal freedom affecting profession, practice and propagation of faith (article 25).

A month ago, 150 Dalits in Kootharanbakkam village of Tamil Nadu converted. Similarly, on November 4 last year thousands of Dalits had converted to Buddhism under the leadership of Udit Raj. This set the trend for conversion in many places. In recent memory, many Dalits converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram in 1984 was a major event. It projected by the Sangh as the invasion of petrodollars for conversion to Islam in India. The issue was used to consolidate upper caste-class reaction against social change, especially related to the aspirations of Dalits. The same issue was raked up again in 1997 when anti-Christian violence was orchestrated. It was alleged that Christian missionaries were converting "by force and allurement". It was also alleged that these were being sponsored with foreign money, courtesy the pope. Pastor Graham Steward Staines was burnt alive along with his two sons when they were sleeping in a jeep. During this period churches began to be attacked, Bibles burnt and Christian priests targeted for violence. The very suddenness and countrywide spread of the phenomenon came as a bolt from the blue.

The attacks were accompanied by intercommunity divide on the ground that new followers of Jesus are abandoning their old communitarian norms, causing conflicts. The most surprising part of the "forcible conversion" myth was that this took place when the percentage of Christian population has been declining. Census data, and data from Justice Wadhwa Commission gave the truth of conversions away.

The All India Christian population in 1971 was 2.6 percent, in 1981, 2.44 percent and in 1991 it stood at 2.32 percent. This shows a marginal decline in all-India population of Christians.

In Manoharpur in Keonjhar district of Orissa, Pastor Staines had been working amongst lepers. Justice Wadhwa report gives interesting statistics. As per this report, there was a rise in Hindu population by 2.52 per cent, and that in Christian population by 0.008 percent between 1991 and 1998. These figures demolish the argument that massive forced conversions are on. The point to be noted is that conversions are projected to be a purely passive process in which poor adivasis are converted by allurement. This again is a point which gives the impression that those converted are mere passive beings bereft of intelligence, just because they are poor and susceptible to the "anti-national" activities of missionaries.

A look at the history of conversions in India will make it clear whether conversion is an active or passive process. If we recall that some time ago the major component of anti-Muslim propaganda was that Muslim kings converted Hindus by the sword. This construct formed the base of the anti-Muslim sentiment. Before we go into the historical process whereby Islam spread in India let us have a look at the opinion of Swami Vivekanand on the issue (Collected Works-Vol. VIII, page 330). "Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohamedans? It is nonsense to say that they were converted by the sword, it was to gain liberty from jamindars (feudal lords) and priests," wrote the Swami.

Islam, contrary to popular belief, came to India through Arab traders who used to visit the Malabar coast for trade. It were the Hindu kings who built the early mosques to sustain the trade. Also, there are still communities in the coastal areas who practice mixed Hindu and Muslim rituals.

Spread of Islam in India came largely through sufi saints whose spiritual strength and attitude of being close to the people attracted the lower castes to embrace Islam in the hope of escaping Brahminical oppression. There is no doubt that some conversions also took place out of fear of the invading Muslim kings as well as of the anticipation of reward from the such kings. However, this number is inconsequential. Similarly, even today there are some insignificant boisterous Christian groups who blow their trumpet and proselytise in an aggressive way. Their impact too is insignificant.

It is interesting that Sikhism, which drew heavily from Islam as well as Hinduism, attracted more of low caste untouchables in large numbers. Many of them converted to Sikhism in the early part of twentieth century despite stiff opposition from the Arya Samaj and other elite Hindu streams. The case of Ambedkar and his followers embracing Buddhism needs recounting. Dr. Ambedkar tried his best to have a place in the Hindu social order. For this he led the Chavdar Talav movement to have access to public drinking water. He led the Kalaram temple agitation to gain entry to Hindu temples. The violent reaction of the upper-caste Hindus to these agitations made him say "though I was born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu." He went on to burn the Manusmriti. Later, he decided to convert to Buddhism.

Dr. Ambedkar’s trajectory is the classical example of low-caste Hindus adopting a different religion by choice. And this is what has been the going on all through the decades — attempts by the low castes to escape the Brahminical social order by embracing different religions. Be those the religions of Indian origin or of foreign origin, what is important is that the oppressed have been active partners in the process, and not mere objects for conversions by someone else as Hindutva votaries would have us believe.

Using conversions as a tool for communal politics is by now an old tactic. Hinduism is based on caste system, and Brahminism has been its dominant factor. It is not a religion based on the teaching of any prophet, and there by preaching it to others is not the norm.

Earlier Brahmin groups, being the elite, insisted more on exclusion of others rather than on proselytisation. Dalits, belonging supposedly to the same religion, were untouchables and had to live in the ghettoes outside the village. Other Indian religions, based on teachings of prophets (Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism), did believe in propagating, and that is how Buddhism, in particular, spread far and wide.

Hindu and Muslim political forces in early part of 20th century did undertake conversions (shuddhi to Hinduism and tanzim and tabligh to Islam). Shuddhi was more to attract those low castes that had adopted Islam or Sikhism as their religion. The current gharwapasi campaign of VHP draws its legitimacy from the assertion that adivasis are Hindus. If one’s belief system, deities, holy books, and communitarian relations determine religion, then it is difficult to know how adivasis are Hindu. They many a times have been beef-eaters, are unaware of Ram and other deities of Hindu religion, are oblivious to the Hindu holy books, i.e. the Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Vedas, and practise animism. As per the obligatory criterion of religion they cannot be called Hindus. But they are being labelled as Hindus because of the political necessities of Hindutva, which vies with Islamic fundamentalism. Gharwapasi is proselytisation in a clever garb. The adivasis are being baptised in newer ways (holy baths, washing their feet with sacred water etc.) and this being backed up with teaching them Hindu ways, i.e., making them aware of Hindu deities, Hindu holy books, Hindu festivals etc. Today, despite the claims to the contrary, many Hindutva outfits are indulging in proselytisation.

The spread of Hinduism is always a problem. Politically, Hindutva needs to assert that all those except Muslims and Christians, are Hindus. Here, the criterion applied is nationalism of religions. One is doubtful if religion can be tied to any nation. Buddhism, which originated in India, is the religion of majority of people in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan and Kampuchea. Christianity originated in the Middle East, but today it is the dominant religion in the US and Europe. 

While in the gharwapasi campaign the new caste of adivasis remains a vague issue, what is remarkable is that conversions as a marginal phenomenon have been a part of Indian reality from ages. The phenomenon of political intolerance has made it an issue.

¯ Ram Puniyani

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