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Debating Conversions: Why do people opt to change their religion?
06/02/2006
By Ram Puniyani

The statement of Pope Benedict XVI about the need to preserve freedom of religion and not to press for legislations against conversions can be understood in many a ways. While one knows that he is not an elected representatives of the Catholics of the World, one does recognize that he like any other clergy e.g. Shankrachaya or an Imam has the standing amongst sections of that community. The recognition of the authority of the clergy is coming back assertively in the social and political space due to unfortunate rise of the politics of identity as witnessed in India and in large sections of the World. Also with the US campaign against the Islam, its 'crusade', against the 'terrorists', many of whom being in the oil zone are Muslims and have been holding the gun due purely to political reasons, and have been deliberately presented as Islamic warriors. Clash of civilizations is the mast head of the US imperialist designs of strengthening its empire in large parts of the World. Politics is adorning the apparel of religion and so there is increasing importance of the clergy of most of the religions.

In India, the politics in the name of religion, the assertive one, that of RSS combine, has been looking for one or the other pretext to intimidate the minorities to consolidate its own politics of imposing a status quo, to abolish the liberal space so that the right of the weaker sections of society are stifled to ensure that interests of elite rule the roost. The anti Muslim tirade has been supplemented by the anti Christian onslaught and this became glaringly visible after the murder of Pastor Graham Steward Stains by the Bajrang dal activist Dara Singh, who despite all the support from the than home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, could not be protected and is currently cooling his heels in the jail. The VHP is calling him as Hindu Dharma Rakshak. (Protector of Hindu Religion). The conversions have been made the major issue at various levels by the Sangh politics. To begin with the conversions of Dalits to Islam due, on one hand to their being deprived from the temple entry and social ostracisation, and on the other due to their interaction with the Sufi saints, has been undermined to project as if the Muslim kings were out to convert the people by sword. There are odd incidents where one of the orthodox kings threatened the defeated king, to convert to Islam, but this was more to humiliate them rather than to spread Islam as such.

It should be pointed out that by and large religions have not been spread by Kings but by the saints in particular. To think that British brought and promoted Christianity to India is again off the mark as Christian missions were present in India long before the coming of British. It's true that because of British the access to India for Missionaries became easier but that's about all. It's important to distinguish between the role of rulers and the saints. The latter lived for the moral aspects of religion due to whom the people got attracted to those religions. To think that religions can just spread by sword or intimidation is totally erroneous. It is the winning of the hearts of the people which results in spread of religions.

All religions do not spread themselves. In earlier times, the religions founded by prophets were the ones where the message was available for all and the "word of God" was preached far and wide, that's how Buddhism, Christianity and Islam spread all over the World. It's true that Hinduism did not spread. The reason is that it is an exclusivist religion; especially its dominant Brahmin tradition keeps others out, it is exclusionary rather than inclusionary. The religions of this type remained confined to one geographical region, its not that there is anything inherently superior in these religions so they do not preach. Most of the followers of each religion do regard that their religion is the best, with divine mandate, others are the deprived lot due to the special favor which the Lord had bestowed upon them. "Ours is a way of life, the total system" others are just religions in a narrow sense, claim many a people from many a religions. Within religions again the followers of sects claim theirs' to be the right way.

Conversions, many a times are looked at by the oppressed writhing with deprivation, as a liberation from the earlier tyranny. That's what Swami Vivekanand wrote about the dalits embracing Islam. The conversion of Hindus to other religions has been going on continuously. People did convert to Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism over a period of time. Many a times the political and social assertions have also masqueraded as attacks on a particular religion. The attacks on Buddhism in the period from 8 th century onwards, due to which Buddhism got banished from India, was the restoration of Brahminical hegemony and caste hierarchy in the society. Kings like Pushyamitra Shung and Shashank led this assault. On the margins, the conversions to Christianity began and continued from AD 52, the 19 centuries of work on the part of Christian missionaries has resulted in the current Christian population of 2.30 (Census 2001), this slow rise in the earlier times was not particularly enhanced during the British period. During the last four decades this population is declining, 1971-2.60, 1981-2.44, 21991-2.32, and 2001-2.30.

The logic of rise of Muslim elite formations like Muslim League on one hand and Hindu elite, formations like Punjab Hindu Sabha, Hindu Mahasabha on the other, were accompanied by conversions for political reasons. Tabliqhi Jamaat resorted to Tanzim (Conversion to Islam).  Arya Samaj came with the move to allow non Hindus, including untouchables, Christian and Muslims, to convert to Arya Samaj through the ceremony called Shuddhikaran (Purification). Earlier to this, orthodox Hindus held that there was no scriptural sanction for non-Hindus, who were regarded as ritually impure to become Hindus. The low castes were converted to these religions. For elite of these communities, Hindus and Muslims, number was the strength of their politics so these went on with conversion drive for some time.

The major conversions during last century came from Dr. Bhimrao Babsaheb Ambedkar, who in a judicious mix of demand for social equality and political rights, led the conversions of Dalits to Buddhism, a religion which was looked down by the Hindutva politics as being timid, leading to weak community. Dr. Ambedkar after seeing the plight of Dalits in the Hindu Social order, for him Hinduism essentially was Brahminic theology, stated that he was born a Hindu that was not in his hands but he will not die a Hindu, and that's why he converted to Buddhism with thousands of dalits followers of his.

One also hears about conversions to Christianity in fifties, for a brief while, in Madhya Pradesh. RSS had taken up the issue of 'threat' posed by Christian missionaries. It was in 1981 that after Meenkshipuram conversion, the hue and cry of Petro dollars was raised and gulf money was cited as the reason for conversion. It was again the humiliation of dalits in the village which had led to this move by the dalits. VHP responded by aggressively communalizing the society. 'Hinduism in danger' became the battle cry of Rath Yatras. Around mid 80s with the RSS taking up the work in the Adivasi areas at a higher pitch, the issue of conversion was raised to the hysterical levels and by now the hate atmosphere is gripping the Adivasi areas. The manifestation of this came in the form of attacks on nuns and pastors, leading to the intimidation of the Christian community in the villages, especially in the BJP ruled states.

It has been observed that whenever the Dalit groups are trying to organize the conversion, the custodians of Hindu religion, VHP and other RSS ilk, loose their sleep and try every possible means including the physical one to try to stop that. While the politics of downtrodden tries to find the relief in running away from the religious order which stifles them; the assertive and dominant sections ensure that conversions are obstructed and stopped outright. Currently the next phase of cultural cooption of Adivasis in to Hindu fold, Ghar vapasi, is the major campaign launched by Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, whose primary agenda is to throw away the Christian missionaries from the Adivasi areas. The legislations by the BJP ruled states are a deliberate attempt to browbeat the Christian minorities. No doubt some Christian sects are preaching with all their zeal but to think that it is a general phenomenon of using allurement or force has no truth in it.

What ever the lack of statesmanship be there in the statement of Pope, it is true that bogey of conversions has come in handy for the Sangh combine, it has served them well in communalizing the adivasi areas and in spreading hate against Christians. It is also true that some Christian sects are doing things which precisely give ammunition to RSS combine to launch their physical and ideological offensives, but over all, the Christian population is on the decline. The propaganda that some people are converting but not declaring it for the reasons of reservation benefit, does not hold much water, as such cases if at all may be few and far between. With all the laws against force and coercion being well in place the new legislation comes in handy for Sangh combine to enhance their agenda to stifle the empowerment of Adivasis, to browbeat the Christian missionaries, and that's what they desire.