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Conversion: a political weapon
05/06/2008
By Ram Puniyani

These days one has been hearing a lot about the conversion activities of Christian missionaries. That there is a threat to Hindu nation due to Adivasis converting to a 'foreign religion' is becoming part of 'social common sense' by now. Yes conversions are going on, but the real face of the conversion came to fore when the attack on nuns in Alibaug near Mumbai (March 2008) was followed by a massive conversion of Adivasis to Hinduism, Shuddhi ritual (April 27, 2008) in Mumbai. The person involved in both these has been the same. In the attack on the Adivasis, the followers of Sadguru Narendra Maharaj of Ramanandcharya Peeth were involved and in the elaborate Shuddhi ritual the Guru himself led the conversion. Talking on the occasion he said the Hindus are being reduced to a pitiable minority in the country because of the activities of Christian missionaries. He also came down heavily on the central Government for not pushing through the anti conversion bill and criticized the Maharashtra Government for passing the anti Superstition bill. According to him both these steps are anti Hindu.
 
His claim that Hindus are being reduced to minority is a stuff of make believe world as demographically India's Hindu population is fairly stable. Also though there is a marginal decline in the population of Christians, this again is close to negligible. If we consider the occasional change in the logistics of conducting the census one can explain the marginal rise/decline of one or the other community and this has not much to do with proselytizing by any religious group. The example of this is the inclusion of Kashmir in 2001 census due to which the overall percentage of Muslim population seemed to have gone up and the total population of Hindus seemed to dip slightly.
 
The criticism by Guru, Narendra Maharaj, is against the grain of Indian constitution, goals of enlightenment and progress of rationalism in the society. The anti conversion bills which many state Governments have passed/are passing are totally against several articles of our constitution. Our constitution encourages the promotion of rational thought, in pursuance of which Maharashtra Government has done the laudable job of passing anti superstition bill. Those opposing this bill surely want the persistence of blind faith in society, it is this which strengthens their social and political clout and Guru is forthright as far as that is concerned. The same Guru's followers are adept to violence off and on. In Alibaug the people had assembled to hear a lecture on AIDS awareness when his followers assaulted the nuns. Again his followers were earlier involved in an act of rampage following the airport security staff not permitting his holy dandam (Staff) to be carried on the flight along with him.
 
How does one understand the rising incidence of violence in Adivasi areas? One recalls just around the Christmas time, massive violence was unleashed in Kandhmal and Phulbani districts of Orissa. In most of the Adivasi areas Dangs, Gujarat, Jhabua Madhya Pradesh, areas of Orissa, there has been a recurrent violence. It is these areas which have seen the conversion of Adivasis into Hindu fold. One must clarify that Adivasis are Animists, neither Christians nor Hindus. While some conversions to Christianity have been occurring they are not new as Christianity has been here from centuries. These conversions are due to many reason, missionaries work in the area of education being the main ones. This is nothing new. Also it is a slow process. In recent times on the contrary the overall population of Christians has been declining marginally (1991-2.60%, 1981-2.44%, 1991-2.34, 2001-2.30%) Part of the conversion surly is due to some groups amongst Christian missionaries who do believe in aggressive proselytization. The Adivasi areas have invited the wrath of RSS combine from last two decades in particular since Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS affiliate intensified its activities in Adivasi areas. 
 
The pattern of RSS affiliate activities is fairly uniform in the Adivasi belt spread from Dangs in Gujarat to Kandhmal in Orissa. There is the EKAL Vidyalaya, a single teacher school to give very elementary education. Then there is a vicious anti Christian propaganda leading to violence. This violence is low intensity and recurrent and lately it is orchestrated more around the Christmas time. Since this takes place in remote places the culprits can get away easily and on the top of that a communalized state apparatus is very helpful to those RSS affiliates who unleash the violence. In these areas various Godmen with RSS affiliation, direct or indirect, have been setting up their Ashrams, Aseemanand; Dangs and Lakshmananand in Orissa are amongst the two major such, who are working for these conversions in various ways. In MP, Jhabua, the followers of Asaram Bapu have been taking to violence and now we witness that in the anti Christian violence in Maharashtra, the followers of Narendra Maharaj are active.
 
There are multiple processes through which these conversions have been undertaken. Usually violence and intimidation is accompanied by cultural cooption. This latter has been done by holding huge Hindu Sangams (Congregations) like in Jhabua, and in Rajasthan and by holding Shabri kumbh (religious congregation in the name of the destitute adivasi woman Shabri, e.g. in Dangs. The conversion has been the major political tool of Dilip Singh Judeo, one who was caught taking bribe while he was forest minister, who has been doing this in Adivasi areas of Madhya Pradesh from last several years. The term Sanskritzation can also help us understand these conversions, an expectation of upward mobility in social hierarchy. The process of conversion to Hinduism has been called Ghar Vapsi or Shuddhikaran on the premise that Adivasis are Hindus. Here the definition of Hindu is not a religious one but a political one. Theologically religion is defined according to holy book, the revered deity and the clergy. Since Hinduism is not a prophet based religion its latest definition was constructed in early 20th  century as religion of all those who regard this land as their father land and holy land (Savarkar). This is unmindful of the fact that Advasis are primarily animists and do not fall in the category of religion as a social phenomenon applicable to Hindus, Muslims, Christians etc.
 
Adivasis are the most deprived lot of the society and RSS combine has targeted them for political reasons, not for their own welfare. As during the early 1920s, to consolidate the communal politics, Shuddhi movement (Hindu Communalism) was unleashed in parallel to Tanzim (Muslim communalism), now again the Shuddhi is back to strengthen the communal politics. The only difference is that during the twentieth century it was parallel to Tanzim, now it has been constructed around the fear of Christians to consolidate its social base and practice. Interestingly the concept of purity and pollution of Brahminical tradition are displayed very prominently in this process. Brahminical rigidities have a clearly defined pure and polluted. While some right wing politicians assert that many other religions look down upon other religions, we the Hindus recognize all to be equal. As per this word Shuddhi, those who are not Hindus are regarded as polluted and so this purification ritual for bringing them into the fold of Hinduism, which by implication is pure. Various types of baths given at the time of conversion signify this purification, external cleansing signifying total purity, which makes one fit enough to be Hindu. Interestingly after the Chavdar Talao and Mahad agitation by Dr. Ambedkar, the lake, which was polluted due to Shudras touching it, was purified by mixing cow dung in the same.
 
Ghar Vapasi word has been cleverly coined. While browbeating Christian missionaries for conversions, to say that 'we' are also converting Adivasis will sound as if 'we' are also doing similar thing. So while what others do is despicable conversion, what 'we' do is to bring them to their original home! The propaganda behind this says that Adivasis are essentially those Hindus who ran away to forests to escape the conversions by Muslim kings. In forests they kept living for long because of which they kept sliding down on the scale of social hierarchy. This concoction serves two purposes. One, it feeds into the misconception that Islam spread by sword. Second, if Adivasis are original inhabitants then Aryans/Hindus who came from outside, are also akin to 'foreigner' Muslim and Christians. This in turn will weaken the Hindu nation's claim as first comers and so the sole proprietors of this land, country or whatever. Accordingly Adivasis are called Vanvasis and the claim of this land being Hindu nation, the one belonging to first comers, Aryans-Hindus holds the ground. This way Hindu nation's claim on the country becomes stronger, as they can also claim to be its original inhabitants.
 
The attention to Adivasis, to throw away Christian Missionaries from those areas and to co-opt Adivasis to Hindu fold, became overt from the decade of 1980, coinciding with the rise of Ram Janm bhumi campaign, coinciding with global rise of identity politics and local rise of communal politics. This came with RSS combine's realization that to impose Hindu rashtra in this country the electoral majority is needed as a starting point. And this 8% population can be the wonderful electoral base for the right wing politics. The second advantage is that by indoctrinating them they can be unleashed against the 'other enemies' of Hindu nation, like Muslims, as witnessed in Gujarat, where they were used as ideal foot soldiers for the agenda of Hindu Rashtra.
 
While one has no problems with the peaceful missionary work of Ramakrishna mission or Christian missionaries one is aghast at this new phenomenon, violence followed by conversions, in our society whose primary focus is political, though couched in the language of religion. More human welfare activities in these areas, more emphasis on human rights concerns of this marginalized section of society are what are needed. By emphasizing on blind faith, by spreading hate against other section of society, this phenomenon started by the ilk of Gurus is very dangerous to national Integration and country's progress.