Freedom of Religions in Semi Secularized Societies: Case of India

A procession of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the religious nationalist organization in Vinjamur, Nellore, India.

Many colonies saw a transition to industrial society in a half-baked manner. With the coming of the British in India, on one hand they introduced the modern industries, modern education leading to the rise of modern industrial, labor and educated classes. On the other the feudal elements continued and came up with politics in the name of religious identity. The modern classes mainly talked of the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The feudal classes harped on religious nationalism.

In India from the rising classes came organizations like Naujavan Bharat Sabha (Bhagat Singh); Independent Labor Party (Ambedkar) and Indian National Congress (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Mahatma Gandhi). From the declining classes came the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. The values of rising class organizations, more or less found their echoes in the Indian Constitution. With partition the Muslim communal-feudal elements got weakened while the RSS as the vehicle of Hindu communalism became very powerful over a period of time and is currently asserting itself through most of the socio-cultural and religious platforms.

It has raised the issues which want to lead the country towards “Hindu nation”. One of these issues has been the one related to religious conversions. On one hand it calls all people of India Hindus, on the other, it asserts that this is a Hindu nation, and on yet another level it states the Christians and Muslims belong to foreign religions, they were initially all Hindus, so they must be brought back to Hindu fold through the process of Ghar Vapasi (return home).

Phenomenon related to Conversion: Post Independence and Recent Events

Propaganda around conversions has been one of the major political tools during last few decades. It was the Niyogi Commission report in the decade of the 1950s which investigated the conversions in Adivasi areas, then the Meenakshipuram conversions of Dalits to Islam, and then the gruesome murder of Pastor Graham Stewart Stains on charges that he was doing the conversion; are few amongst the big spectrum related to the phenomenon of conversions. As such the regular propaganda by communal forces that ‘Muslim Kings converted people into Islam by the sword’ has been made a part of ‘social common sense’ by now. On a regular basis around Christmas time one saw the anti-Christian violence in Adivasi areas a decade ago, and at that time rather than focusing on the violence against religious minorities, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a National debate on Conversions.

In the recent conversions to Hinduism in Agra (10 December 2014) nearly 350 pavement dwelling-rag pickers and other destitute sections were promised that if they participate in the religious function they will be given ration cards and BPL cards. This was done by the Bajrang Dal activists and the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti both outfits affiliated to RSS. The only difference is that this process has been called Ghar Vapasi and not conversion. On one hand this is being projected as a great valorous achievement by the RSS leaders like Yogi Adiytnath, on the other it is being labeled as a masterstroke by the RSS ideologues.

According to one RSS ideologue, they had been calling for a ban on conversions, which was being opposed by the secular elements and religious minorities. This conversion, nay Ghar Vapasi, will bring to fore the debate to bring about a strict law against any conversion. If, as reported, the conversion of 350-odd Muslims in Ved Nagar in Agra to Hinduism is the work of the RSS, it is clear that the RSS has grown strategic, according to the RSS ideologue.

As per this ideologue this move of the RSS is a smart one too. It seems to have triggered a debate on conversions which it has been asking for decades but was evaded by its critics. While communal elements are crying hoarse that Meenakshiuram has been the act of conversions through petrodollars and the Christian missionaries are doing conversion with foreign money, the truth of the matter is somewhat different. Meenakshipuram conversion was triggered by humiliation of the dalit youth by the upper caste.

While the propaganda that Christian missionaries are doing forcible conversions is on the peak, the fact is that no evidence of the application of force has been generally reported. It is also true that while some Christian sects do claim that they are converting; the majority sects affirm that when the conversion is sought by someone in the society and only under that voluntary request the conversion, if at all, takes place.

Interestingly as many people have started believing that the missionaries are converting, the population of Christians has shown a marginal decline during last few decades as per census figures (1971-2.60, 1982-2.44. 1991-2.34, 2001-2.30 and probably 2.20 in 2011). The Wadhwa Commission, which was appointed by then home minister L.K. Advani in the aftermath of the burning of Pastor Stains points out that the Pastor was not involved in the work of conversions and that in Keonjhar in Manoharpur of Orissa, the percentage of Christians has shown fair stability, or a statistical insignificant rise in the percentage of Christian population during the time Pastor Stains was working there.

Conversions to Islam and Christianity

How have conversion taken place in India? We can examine this in two stages. In medieval period as far as conversion to Islam is concerned it took place mainly due to caste oppression, as pointed out by Swami Vivekananda: “Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammadens?  It is nonsense to say that they were converted by the sword.  It was to gain liberty from Zamindars and Priests…..” (Collected Works- Vol. 8- Page 330.) Surely a small section did convert to Islam due to anticipation for reward by Muslim kings, a smaller section due to fear and a substantial chunk due to the social interaction as seen in the Muslims of Malabar coast and the Muslims of Mewat.

Major conversion to Islam during medieval time was due to the influence of Sufi saints, at whose Dargah the untouchables could also visit. Since even today one fourth of the population holds to the norms of untouchability, it is not surprising that some dominated castes do keep deciding to leave the fold of Hinduism, as was proclaimed by Dr. Ambedkar, who left Hinduism with the proclamation that “I was born a Hindu; that was not in my hands, but I will not die a Hindu.”

The conversions to Christianity did not begin with the coming of the British as propagated by some. Christianity is centuries-old, entering India with the coming of St Thomas in the first century. Some scholars doubt this version and hold that Christianity came here in the fifth century. The Christian missionaries have been working here in the neglected Adivasi areas providing health and educational services, the appeal of which prompted many an Adivasi-Dalit to embrace this religion. It is only from the last six decades that communal forces have been showing their discomfort of missionaries working in the Adivasi-village areas where violence has been more. Not to forget here is the point that many a Christian institution is located in cities, where all sections of society vie to send their children.

One can also concede that a few of these missions may be aiming for conversions through their prayer and healing services. The question of allurement and fraud, if at all, may be a small component of the phenomenon of conversion to Christianity. Most of the attacks and accusations which took place against Christian missionaries were as they were holding prayer meetings. The money they receive comes through proper FCRA channel, and many NGOs including organizations like the RSS also receive foreign funds to be sure.

The façade of Ghar Vapasi

Now the assertion is that what RSS affiliates do is a Ghar Vapasi! They claim so many things which are pure political concoctions. The voluntary conversions have very much been a part of caste ridden Indian society. It is another matter that even the Christian and Muslim communities could not remain free from this caste virus, but the hope of the dominated castes to get social justice has played a major role in changing one’s faith. The RSS claim that the ancestors of all these converts were Hindus has no relevance in the debate today. How is ancestry important in one’s faith and the citizenship today? Do we have to trace our ancestry to decide today’s faith? Where will this lead us? The theory of evolution apart the latest DNA studies show that human’s beginning is from South Africa. The coming of Aryans to India from Arctic zone (Lokmanya Tilak ) to that Aryans were original inhabitants of India is a perpetual debate, with more heat than light in it.

What was the religion of Nomads-Pagans? Some social scientists call it indigenous culture, rather than religion for the phenomenon which was and is practiced by indigenous (Adivasi) people all over the world. Society is always changing. As the caste system has been a central part of religion in India many of the dominated castes regularly kept leaving Hinduism to opt for other religions—Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. People felt that they are not getting equality and so kept leaving the Hindu fold and embracing other religions. After Lord Buddha’s teachings a large chunk of people became Buddhists in the subcontinent. It is another matter that later in the Brahminical reaction, Buddhism was wiped out from here. Many felt that the missions are doing service to their community so they changed their faith.

The problem, which the RSS projects is due to its being hung up to the values and system of the past; pastoral, agricultural-feudal societies. The changes in the social system accompany the changes in the systems of production and education in particular, are totally missing in its world view. India came into being through the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, who could unite the people of all religions as he treated all religions on equal ground. For him, there was no distinction between foreign and native religions. Three types of nationalisms competed with each other during the freedom movement.

On one hand there was the concept of Indian Nationalism and the accompanying concept of ‘India as a nation in the making’, this is what was followed by most of the people of all religions. The other was Muslim Nationalism, which located its beginning from the time of Muhammad bin Kasim’s victory in Sindh in the eighth century. And the third one was Hindu nationalism, “we are a Hindu nation from times immemorial,” as held by the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. Both these latter nationalisms derived their legitimacy from identity of religion and had miniscule social support.

Gandhi and Conversions

Unfortunately Gandhi is quoted extensively by right wing forces to oppose conversions; but his quotes which are taken for support are fragments of what he said. His major quote on conversion is from collected works, Volume XLVI p. 27-28. In an interview dated 22 March 1931, given to The Hindu, Gandhi apparently stated that “if in self governing India, missionaries kept ‘proselytizing’ by means of medical aid, education etc., I would certainly ask them to withdraw. Every nation’s religion is as good as any other. Certainly India’s religions are adequate for her people. We need no converting spirituality.” This is the first part of the quote and the lines that follow give the totally opposite idea, the ideas, which Gandhi held.

Gandhi goes on to write, “This is what the reporter has put in my mouth… All that I can say is that it is a travesty of what I have always said and held.” He goes on to explain, “I am, then, not against conversion. But I am against the modern methods of it. Conversions nowadays have become a matter of business, like any other… Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.” And then he goes on to list the faiths of India, “Apart from Christianity and Judaism, Hinduism and its offshoots, Islam and Zoroastrianism are living faiths.”

As Gandhi opposed the divisive agenda of communal forces, which were using identity of religions for political purposes, Gandhi in contrast was harping on ‘morality’ of religions to unite the people. So while he was leading the anti-colonial struggle the communalists were spitting fire against the ‘other community’ and ‘Shuddhi’ (Arya Samaj) and Tanzim (Tablighi Jamat) was part of their political agenda in the early part of twentieth century. The Hindu religion is not a prophet based religion, so the concept of conversion is not there. In most prophet based religions the call for spreading the divine word is there. So earlier Arya Samaj coined the word Shuddhi, which was for forcible conversion into Hinduism.

The RSS improvised on that and has coined the word Ghar Vapasi as a clever move to hide its ‘forcible conversion drive’. Its claim that it is undertaking Ghar Vapasi to bring the religious minorities into the mainstream is again a hoax as minorities had been equal participants in the movement for India’s freedom, a struggle from which the RSS remained aloof, barring one exception. To claim that Adivasis are Hindus, again does not hold water as Adivasis are animists, believing in nature worship, and in the spirit of their ancestors and spirit of nature. All over the world indigenous people hold similar beliefs and have similar practices. This is unlike Hinduism where Gita, Ram and Acharya are the core part of it belief today.

RSS and Ghar Vapsi: Forcible Conversions

The central point is that the RSS does not recognize Indian nationalism and holds to Hindu nationalism so the whole maneuver for this ‘forcible conversion’ is being passed off as ‘Ghar Vapasi’ while dubbing other conversions as forcible. Rather than recognizing the qualitative change in the formation of India as the nation state, it is stuck to the pastoral-feudal-preindustrial society with the values of caste and gender hierarchy. The ‘Ghar Vapasi’ is being planned on larger scales. And an intimidating and fraudulent atmosphere is being created to execute the forcible conversions. This is a frightening message to religious minorities. This is a clever manipulation of political power to violate the norms of the Indian constitution.

Then how do we distinguish between a forcible conversion and adoption of a new religion? In the present scheme of things if one leaves the Hindu fold to embrace Buddhism-Jainism-Sikhism, it is OK, as they are ‘Indian religions’. For communalists the problem seems to be only with Islam and Christianity! The basic shrewdness is to call religions as national or foreign. As such religions are basically universal not bound by national boundaries.

Constituent Assembly Debates on Conversions

The Constituent Assembly had discussed this threadbare and so the right to practice and propagate one’s religion is very much present. In the debate the word used is ‘converting’ others. Where is the place for people volunteering and adopting another religion, like Ambedkar and so many others? In a way it is a way to undermine the conscience of people that somebody is converting them. Where is the place for choice of one’s religion in a democratic society believing in ‘freedom of religion and conscience’?

With the RSS plans for a bigger conversion, nay Ghar Vapasi in Aligarh this Christmas (2014) the attempt to polarize society is being taken to a higher pitch. The heroes of the RSS parivar like Yogi Adityanath are saying that those being subjected to Ghar Vapasi will be given the Gotra and caste from which they converted! So come what may, the caste structure and rigidities remain and thrive. That’s what the agenda of nationalism in the name of Hinduism is!

Legal Dilemmas Today

“Indian Constitution Articles 25-30 guarantee citizens’ freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.  …In 1954, Parliament took up for consideration the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill. Six years later, another law, the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill, 1960, was proposed to stop conversion. Both were dropped for want of support. However, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh passed anti-conversion laws in 1967, 1968 and 1978 respectively. Later, similar laws were passed by the state assemblies of Chhattisgarh (2000), Tamil Nadu (2002), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006), and Rajasthan (2008). The laws were intended to stop conversions by force or inducement, or fraudulently. Some of the laws made it mandatory to seek prior permission from local authorities before conversion…

“These laws made forced conversion a cognizable offence under sections 295 A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code, which pertain to malicious and deliberate intention to hurt the religious sentiments of others…Chief Justice of India A N Ray upheld the validity of the laws, saying freedom to propagate one’s religion, as stipulated under Article 25 (1), did not grant a fundamental right to convert another person. The bench ruled that a purposive conversion would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all citizens.” (Excerpted from Utkarsh AnandNew Delhi; Posted: December 13, 2014 2:11 am. Updated: December 13, 2014 8:25 am –Indian Express)

Do we need laws to ban conversions? We have laws to punish those who indulge in force, fraud and allurement. What we need is to distinguish between voluntary conversion and forced ones. Ghar Vapasi is a shrewd name for forcible conversions. So what we need is the political and moral will to promote freedom of religion and punish the guilty, using illegal means to achieve the change of faith. The so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ bills are there not to provide freedom of conscience but to curb the same by legal means. The attempt of the BJP controlled NDA is to bring in anti-conversion laws to intimidate the minority sections and threaten the freedom of religion guaranteed under our Constitution.