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The Lure of lucre and the Hindutva proselytization project
By Yoginder Sikand
|A striking feature of contemporary Hindutva discourse as it has come to be shaped is the great stress that is given to what is seen as the pressing need for increasing Hindu numbers. This is to be done principally by two means. Firstly, by seeking to prevent the conversion of Hindus to other religions, principally Christianity and Islam. Secondly, by trying to bring to the Hindu fold non-Hindu individuals and groups through what is known as ‘shuddhi’ or ‘purification,’ itself a demeaning term which clearly shows what is meant by the oft-repeated term in Hindutva discourse of ‘respect for all religions.’
‘Shuddhi’ as we know it today has its roots in the charged communal atmosphere of the 1920s in northern India, when the Arya Samaj began a massive campaign to convert to the Hindu fold tens of thousands of Muslims belonging to the Rajput Malkana community living in the western districts of Uttar Pradesh. Thereafter, the ‘shuddhi’ drive seems to have slowed down, if not completely halted. It has, however, been revived in recent years, with reports of numbers of Muslims and, more so, Christians in various parts of India being brought to the Hindu fold.
An insight into the way the ‘shuddhi’ project is conceived may be had from the numerous writings on the subject by Hindutva ideologues. A random check on the internet showed numerous sites run by Hindutva-related groups who seem to be involved in Hindu proselytization activities. One of the more vocal of these is a certain S.P.Attri, based in the USA. In his appeal titled ‘Shuddhi’ [see www.hinduweb.org] he writes that he had recently received a booklet brought out by the VHP containing an appeal by the VHP President Ashok Singhal, calling for every Hindu to become a ‘vishsiht ajiwan hitachantak’ [‘special life well-wisher’] of the VHP by contributing Rs. 10,000 each, to prepare at least 10,000 Hindu missionaries in the course of the next three years. These missionaries would travel throughout the length and breadth of India preaching Hinduism and trying to combat the efforts of missionaries of other faiths.
Attri sees ‘shuddhi’ in typical commercial terms, as little more than trading in numbers, as is evident from his lament that, compared to the Muslims and the Christians, the Hindus ‘are new at this conversion business’. He writes of another difficulty that the Hindu evangelists face—the existence of ‘80,000 Christian missionaries and 100,000 Moslem Tabligis.’ conveniently forgetting to mention that the Tablighi Jama’at activists do not anywhere attempt to preach to people other than the Muslims themselves. He uses the language of conflict and war, and there seems to be no profound spiritual urge behind his missionary agenda. Thus, he writes of the pressing need for a Hindu ‘missionary army’ which would ‘beat our adversaries at their own game’.
Attri pins his hopes for the enormous amount of funds to be raised for the VHP’s ambitious ‘shuddhi’ campaign on Hindu NRIs, pointing out that when translated into dollars, the sum of Rs.10,000 per head, is a paltry amount which most Hindu NRIs can easily afford. As for the legal hurdles in transferring this money to India, he comes up with an ingenious solution, to, as he puts it, ‘get around the problem of the Government of India rules hurdle’ of not allowing foreign exchange donations without permission. Thus, in a detailed note titled ‘Procedure For Donating Money to VHP Shuddhi Programme,’ he writes that to circumvent this problem the VHP has floated a trust, the Bharat Kalyan Prathishthan, which can accept foreign money ‘provided the donor accompanies his donation with a letter saying [that]:‘This money is to be used for the welfare of the tribals and the Dalits.’
Being victims of the oppressive caste system, scores of Dalits and tribals have, over the centuries, sought liberation through conversion to egalitarian religions such as Islam and Christianity, and the process continues today as well, in different forms. A central concern of the VHP’s ‘shuddhi’ project is to put a halt to these conversions, which it does through concerted efforts at Hinduizing these sections, who are traditionally not even considered to be part of the Hindu fold. Appeals for vast sums of money that is sought to be directed to the VHP in the name of ‘welfare’ of tribals and Dalits, as Attri puts it, seem to have little to do with the actual welfare and upliftment of these groups. If their principal source of oppression has, through the centuries, been Brahminism and the caste system, the VHP’s ‘shuddhi’ campaign is, far from liberating them from their servitude, is only geared to further strengthening Brahminical control and preventing the assertion and articulation of the liberative stirrings of the long-oppressed ‘lower’ castes. ‘Shuddhi’ may be presented in glowing, radical terms, promising to usher in a reformed, egalitarian Hinduism. This, however, is far from being the case. According to a recent report by Amberish Diwanji in the web-magazine rediff.com, a person of a stature no less than the Shankaracharya of Puri, Nischaland Saraswati, who occupies a central role in all of Hinduism, has laid down that non-Hindus who undergo ‘shuddhi’ should pray in separate temples, these being designated by the curious name of ‘swastik mandirs.’ In other words, the caste system, far from being attacked, is only sought to be given further legitimacy. As Diwanji rightly puts it, ‘If the VHP and the Shankaracharya really cared for those who seek to become Hindus, the way is not to push them into separate temples.’ It appears, he says, that what the Shankaracharya wants is, in fact, ‘to deny them entry into the temples that exist.’‘Shuddhi’ seems to be big business, going by the VHP’s calls for large donations for the cause. Some enterprising individuals even seem to be making a thriving livelihood out of this, bringing to mind the days of the ‘shuddhi’ campaign among the Malkanas in the 1920s, when some Malkanas would, it is reported, agree to accept the religion of the highest bidder. The not inconsiderable pecuniary gains to be made from ‘shuddhi’ business is strikingly illustrated by another appeal for Hindu missionary work among Muslims to be found in http:www.hindunet. org. The sender is one Vishal Agarwal. In an appeal dated 21 March 1999, he writes that it is ‘a matter of great joy’ that some 50,000 Rajput Muslims of Ghaziabad in western Uttar Pradesh have ‘expressed the desire to convert to Hinduism.’ A mass ‘shuddhi’ ceremony was to be held in early 1999 but had to be put off till later owing to lack of funds. In order that the ‘shuddhi’ can be performed, he says, a sum of Rs. 24 million is required, including for the replacement of the ‘burqas’ of Muslim women by ‘saris’ and ‘dhotis’ for ‘lungis’ for their menfolk.
The decision for this mass conversion, Agarwal says, is a result of the efforts of one Dr. Anand Suman Singh, a Rajput Muslim convert to Hinduism.
Kunwar Rafat Akhlaq Raozada, as he was earlier called, was apparently ‘well-steeped [sic.] in Islam’ till ‘God opened his eyes to Hindu Dharma.’ Thereafter, he converted to Hinduism in 1981, losing all his ancestral property but gaining a Hindu name. Since then, Agarwal says, Singh has been ‘striving ceaselessly’ to bring other Muslims to the Hindu fold, having claimed to have conducted the ‘shuddhi’ of over 300,000 Muslims in the last 17 years, mainly in UP, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Agarwal earnestly appeals to his readers to contribute liberally to Dr.Singh’s conversion drive in Ghaziabad. His appeal is directed particularly at US-based Hindu NRIs. He says that they should send in cheques for the purpose, but in order to circumvent the government rules they should specify that ‘these funds are a donation for humanitarian work in India.’ It is striking here, as in the case of Attri quoted above, to see how appeals for dollars to promote aggressive Hindu proselytizing work are sought to be covered up in the name of humanitarian assistance, while, in the same breath, Hindutva ideologues never tire of accusing Christian and Muslim organizations of securing foreign funds for missionary work in the name of welfare projects.
Agarwal’s appeal brought forth a flurry of letters from, among others, US-based Hindu NRIs, enthusiastic about Dr. Singh’s conversion programme, promising to donate money for the cause. However, hardly had a month passed when, on 21 April, 1999, Agarwal posted a curious note to the web-site, regretfully announcing that ‘It was later learnt that the person [Dr.Singh] is a hoax, and has been playing upon the sentiments of Hindus.’ In August that year, Agarwal provided more interesting details about the mysterious Dr. Singh. Apparently he was indeed a Muslim convert to the Arya Samaj, becoming one of its ‘prominent members.’ He was later expelled from the Samaj for acts of fraud. He was shrewd enough, however, to discover the lucrative prospects to be had in the ‘shuddhi’ business. Accordingly, he went about ‘floating new organizations and soliciting funds every two years.’ In order to escape from the law, he regularly changed his address.
So much, then, for the much-vaunted spiritual light that Dr. Suman had seen on his conversion.