By Tanweer Fazal,
If there has been one singular achievement of the new regime so far, it is the high-intensity infusion of a new political vocabulary into our public discourse. Some of this is freshly minted, while others are dusted and dug out from the hoary past. Ideas of equality, dignity, distribution, representation, poverty alleviation, citizenship, even cricket—old-fashioned, boring and ‘Nehruvian’ for many, have been swapped with ghar wapasi, love jihad, shuddhikaran, imposition of Sanskrit, and a cruder raamzada/haraamzada.
These are exciting times indeed. And this is one reason (apart from the structural ones, of course) why our sensation-inflected news channels’ admiration for the new dispensation refuses to subside. This new political discourse has replaced the ideas of universality and compositeness with binaries, prejudices and stereotypes. In a nutshell, the development raga has unveiled itself sooner rather than later as a hoax, proving yet again that culture and economics are not as discrete as they were being made out to be by certain enthusiasts.
To my mind, that a small number of Muslim rag-pickers in Agra embraced Hinduism should not have generated the controversy that it eventually spurred. The fact that the conversion was in return for certain guarantees of citizenship documents—BPL and Adhaar cards—shouldn’t have surprised many, and ideally not have enraged any. After all, individuals and groups should be allowed to make strategic choices, including those about their religious persuasion. Historically, for those on the margins of society, conversion or no conversion, their social and material world has largely remained unchanged. Neither has conversion to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism or any other religion upheld the promise of a more dignified life, nor necessarily assured speedier mobility. The plight of Muslim and Christian Dalits and mazhabi Sikhs is not unknown. Even within the small Buddhist community, the neo-Buddhists still find themselves outcasts when compared to the entrenched groups. Caste hierarchies have proved to be sturdier and more enduring than religious identity in our part of the world.
The census figures of the past years do not attest to the charge of large-scale conversions and do not warrant the moral panic being whipped up by the Sangh and its affiliates. Beyond the domain of the strictly religious, it is the politics of conversion that we are faced with. Religion as a faith and religion as an ideology—Ashis Nandy reminded us—do not necessarily have a common umbilical cord. It is no surprise therefore that while Christian evangelists, and to a much lesser extent Muslim tablighs (earlier the Sufis), responded to the tenets of their religious conviction and took up missions to spread the message, in the case of Hinduism, where proselytization was not institutionalised, the cause has been taken up by a political organisation—the RSS and its offshoots. Simply put, it is not ghar wapasi to sanatan Hinduism but to Hindutva—the majoritarian nationalist project. Because only Hindutva can promise a fictitious horizontality to such excluded communities that Vedic Hinduism, in its celebration of varnashrama dharma, doesn’t.
Political instrumentality prompts RSS leaders to assure higher caste status to those returning to the fold even as we still have temples, water tanks, and marital ties with upper castes denied to the Shudras and the ‘untouchables’.
Tied to the idea of an aggressive nationalism, the Hindutva project doesn’t just seek re-conversion to soothe its ego. Rather, it is the grander vision of a Hindu nation founding a Hindu state and citizenry that demands the attention of all those who value equality and dignity. The insidiousness in the Agra, Aligarh and all such endeavours goes beyond the immediacy of context.
We are all familiar with Guru Golwalkar’s pitribhumi-punyabhumi qualification for a true national. Of course, Muslims and Christians, on account of their holy land being outside the boundaries of Bharatmata, are perpetual suspects. Ghar wapasi is an ideological project to produce the loyal citizen for the Hindu nation-state. For the VHP, therefore, a change of faith from Hinduism to Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, for that matter, doesn’t dismember the Hindu nation, but one to Islam and Christianity does. Amid all this debate, the Gaya BJP MP admonished his fellow caste members for voluntarily embracing Christianity as a protest against caste oppression: “You could have become Kabirpanthi or even atheist, and remained Hindu.” Faith is not what the Hindutva activists seek to resuscitate (how could an atheist be faithful?). it is the nation-state dyed in saffron that they are out to realise, let us be clear.
The tragedy, however, is that Hindutva doesn’t simply reside within the RSS and its cohorts. Its reach is much beyond and touches the chord of much of our intelligentsia, occupies significant discursive space in the public sphere, finds its acceptance in media discourses and partially finds reflection even in the constitutional space, otherwise a liberal doctrine. The idea of a grand Hindu family subsuming within itself Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism is retained in the legal definition of a Hindu in the Hindu Civil Code. More or less the same distinction has been maintained in Article 341 that guarantees entitlements to Scheduled Castes who have to be compulsively Hindu, Sikh or neo-Buddhist—all from the so-called Indic family. That it violates guarantees of freedom of conscience in letter and spirit has not been able to move the courts much or even the secular regimes that were at the helm for so long.
History is probably as undistinguished as the present. In the Constituent Assembly, freedom of conscience, including the right to propagate religion, was a concession to the demands of the Christian members in return for their support to the withdrawal of the provision for guaranteed representation to the minorities. The ‘minority compromise’, as it came to be known, had but a brief life. By the 1960s, governments in many states, including Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh, sought to enact laws to curb what they termed ‘forcible’ and ‘induced’ conversion. Seemingly innocuous, a desire to check the activities of Christian missionaries can easily be discerned.
The Orissa and Madhya Pradesh Acts (1967), among the earliest ones, left the categories of both ‘force’ and ‘allurement’ conveniently ambiguous. Thus, not just physical threat but even the threat of ‘divine displeasure’, and allurements, including ‘non-pecuniary’ (pecuniary and other), would be penalised. Religious persuasion was rendered less a matter of personal belief, and more a certification from the district magistrate.
In more recent times, the anti-conversion legislation has become even more stringent with the state arrogating to itself the right to decide the personal faith of its individual citizens. The Gujarat Act (2003), introduced by Modi’s trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, criminalised conversion and put the onus on the individual believer to seek approval from state authorities a month in advance. Through an amendment in 2006, the Indic/non-Indic dichotomy was introduced. Buddhists and Jains were clubbed with Hindus; conversion among them was defined as denominational change for which no approval was required. This provision, however, failed to impress the Governor and had to be dropped. Other BJP-ruled states—Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, too soon took a cue from the Gujarat model and followed with their respective legislation. Not to be left behind were governments under secular parties—Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. None of these laws, however, proscribe the Hinduisation of India’s indigenous populations, for they are assumedly part of the grand family. Conscious, perhaps, of the state of unfreedom that they had created, the legislation was curiously named the Freedom of Religion Act. There could be few examples of such cunning and deceit.
Should conversion necessarily be a matter of deep inner conviction, an individual’s quest for spiritual nirvana? If we go by the legal interpretations, the desire for a better life, the aspiration to make a radical departure from the indignities of the existent do not qualify as justifiable reasons for embracing a new religious system. But rarely has religion confined itself to the sacred and the metaphysical. Its involvement with the material world is far more pronounced. It has sanctioned social arrangements, legitimised gender and status hierarchies and justified appropriation of resources.
For Ambedkar therefore, the act of renouncing Hinduism by the ‘untouchables’ was no less than a class struggle. It was a revolution that reminded us how, without the annihilation of the caste system, social reformism would not blunt the anger of the outcastes. This is today’s lesson to the ghar wapasi campaigners.
The author is an associate professor at JNU and this article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Hardnews Magazine.