‘Ghar wapsi’: Politics of conversion

Published: December 30, 2014
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The writer is a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary

The writer is a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary

The recent controversy in the Indian media and parliament about mass conversions of around 55 Muslim families to Hinduism has peeled away deep layers off Indian politics. It reflects on the manner in which Indian politics is shaping up after the BJP and its close associates ascended to power. During a debate, an Indian minister, Venkaiah Naidu, tried to assuage public sentiment while alluding to India’s anti-conversion laws and some court rulings that have taken a firm view on the subject. The minister, in the same breath, however, eulogised the RSS, the BJP’s mother organisation, which is at present giving tacit support to its active associates like the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal that are spearheading the controversial conversion campaign. The mass conversion in Agra recently saw Muslims converting to Hinduism in a proper ceremony before the electronic and print media. They had worked as rag-pickers, and it is being claimed that their forefathers had converted to Islam.

The move in Agra was sponsored by the Bajrang Dal, a militant right wing organisation that forms the youth wing of the VHP, an extremist outfit. One of the goals of these organisations has been to build the Ram Janambhoomi temple in Ayodhya, a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims. Another key objective has been to preserve and promote India’s Hindu identity and to put a check on Muslim demographic growth and conversions to Christianity. The Bajrang Dal also has a tainted history of involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002. It had been reportedly responsible for attacking Christians in Orissa and Karnataka.

To the protagonists of this move, these conversions are nothing more than the ‘ghar wapsi’ of those who were once lured by an ‘alien faith’ and this is, at best, a reconversion on voluntary basis. This lobby strongly feels that it is an opportune time to reassert India’s Hindu identity. There has also been mass conversion of around 200 Christians in Gujarat on December 20. These conversions are a well-thought-out move by those who are now controlling the political levers to give new meaning to the national narrative in India and give more space and reasoning to achieve the ultimate goals of Hindutva. Supporters of the conversion lobby view Christianity and Islam as outsider faiths, while Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are treated as indigenous religions with a different threshold of tolerance and acceptance. The VHP, for instance, treats Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as parts of the greater Hindu fraternity, being faiths of Indian origin. This is indeed an interesting debate, which is now seeing its physical manifestation in a society that claims to have secular credentials. Buddhism sprang from India and has spread to nooks and corners of the Far East and China. However, it lost ground in its home country and like Jainism, is mostly confined to monasteries in India. Similarly, Sikhism is now mainly confined to Punjab alone.

The Bajrang Dal and the VHP draw support and sustenance from their mother organisation, the RSS, which trains its cadres through a strict regime of disciplines. It is an ideology-based organisation, which was founded some nine decades ago and has moved into the areas of charity and education in a big way. It has a very close nexus with India’s politics. During the Indian general elections, the RSS cadres, for instance, were closely involved with the selection process of BJP candidates. This had been on account of a historical connect between both organisations. During the Rath Yatra, for instance, the Rath traversed through many states before reaching Ayodhya, which resulted in the demolition of the Babri Mosque and triggered bloody communal riots. Organisational matters of the Rath in Gujarat were closely supervised by Narendra Modi himself.

The history of the spread of Islam in India makes for an interesting study. The impression is that it was on account of conquest and an element of coercion that the faith spread in India. Conquest did set the stage for a realisation regarding the discriminatory caste-ridden social order prevalent in India, which helped clusters of the indigenous population to gravitate towards the new faith. In the case of Christianity, it spread on account of economic opportunities and better educational prospects as missionary institutions took the lead in these areas. In the case of Islam, the role of sufis and dargahs cannot be glossed over whose message had a far deeper appeal than the singular phenomenon of conquest and takeover. The great Muslim saint, Hazrat Bahauddin Zakaria of Multan, for instance, preached the new faith for years under the shadows of the Prahladpuri Hindu temple. There are umpteen such examples. Muslim rulers, barring some exceptions, were benign in their religious dispensation and by and large secular in their outlook. They not only brought in new ideas and practices to Indian society but also imbibed the richness of the indigenous mosaic.

The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and its propagation. But mass conversions in the glare of the media cast a doubt on their voluntary nature. The prior announcements of venues and the numbers expected to convert give the clear impression that the element of voluntary acceptance to convert is missing.

While Narendra Modi may be pushing for development and greater connectivity with the world, he is also depending on the street and cerebral powers of fundamentalist outfits for more political space. These outfits pose a palpable threat to Indian inclusiveness. Much depends on how Modi grapples with such controversial and orchestrated moves. There are voices that are eulogising Nathuram Godse, Mahatam Gandhi’s assassin, and are seeing the Indian population through the lens of “Ramzadas” and “Haramzadas” as put by a BJP politician recently. Lukewarm disapprovals of such acts are no substitutes for outright condemnations and disassociations from them.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 30th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • BCCI
    Dec 30, 2014 - 12:43AM

    Yaaawwnn!!! India is a secular democracy. Anybody can convert from any religion to any other religion..It’s been happening for decades in India. No force involved..completely voluntary with monetary benefits of course.. It does not lead to death and destruction, suicide bombing of western targets, schools, no strategic assets are involved,, doesn’t need drones for rectification..Basically, it’s none of anybody’s b*y business..

    Cheers and Peace!!!

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  • Tousif Latif
    Dec 30, 2014 - 1:14AM

    Mingling of religion with politics is a recipe for disaster .Unfortunately this curse has bedevilled the South Asian region.The forced conversions of Muslims is really tragic and painful.It is unfortune a fact that fundamentalist,whereever they are have no sense of propotion and are oblivious of the consequences of their acts.Recommend

  • wb
    Dec 30, 2014 - 2:16AM

    I had a friend who failed in exams and tests, fought with students, most of the times got suspended from school or was made to stand outside the classroom. He was terrible in sports, nonetheless, he would bully and make some headway when it came to playing football.

    Nonetheless, he used to preach us a lot about life lessons. All bad lessons though, like never give up a fight, always argue, if you don’t get what you want then cry, throw tantrum etc. We didn’t mind back then, because he was funny, amusing and interesting. But today, when I look back, I don’t understand why such a student gave me advice and why I used to listen to it.

    Today, I think he drives an autorickshaw somewhere. Well hopefully honestly.

    “Buddhism sprang from India and has spread to nooks and corners of the Far East and China. However, it lost ground in its home country and like Jainism, is mostly confined to monasteries in India. Similarly, Sikhism is now mainly confined to Punjab alone.”

    Sikhism has always been mainly confined to Punjab. But Sikh population is scattered across the country.

    I don’t even understand the meaning of : jainism is mostly confined to monastries! What the heck does that even mean?

    And Buddhists are a tiny percentage. Besides, Buddha maybe a sage to Buddhists, but to Hindus, he’s a deity. Buddha is the reincarnation of Vishnu. Buddha is more than a Hindu for Hindus.

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  • Shock and Horror
    Dec 30, 2014 - 2:31AM

    @Tariq Mehmud

    It is interesting, is it not, that you talk in detail about conversions in India. Have you ever thought about, and put pen to paper, about the forced conversions of minorities in Pakistan? Please tell us as to why the proportion of minorities in Pakistan has dwindled from 20 percent at the time of partition to 3 percent at the present time. It looks as if most Pakistani journalists are too busy looking at the problems faced by Muslims in India and do not care about the problems in their own backyard!

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  • Swami
    Dec 30, 2014 - 4:21AM

    Author is right that act of conversion is multi dimensional. Ghar Wapsi is seen as returning to the fold of Dharma which is the foundation of all the Bharat born Indic spiritual traditions. The distinction can easily be explained as House of Dharma and House of Adharma i,e sinful,immoral way of life limited to sense gratification,lacking spiritual awareness. This Us Dharmic Vs Them Adharmic is not something new but as old as the dawn of human consciousness to differentiate between good and evil using certain social, cultural, spiritual measurements.

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  • Dec 30, 2014 - 5:53AM

    Dipak@Tousif Latif:
    I am sure your forefathers were converted to Islam by force.

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  • Shantanu Deb Barman (Tripura)
    Dec 30, 2014 - 6:13AM

    “Ghar Wapasi” must be taken up on a war footing in the North East India. 90% of insurgency in North East India is due to proselytizing by Christians – who brainwash people into believing – they gave no connection to main land India – just because we are racially not similar to North India or South India. India/Bharat is a cultural phenomenon – all of us are India/Bharat and India/Bharat is of all of us.

    We may have political grievances – that is a different, solvable conversation.

    Peace.

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  • vasan
    Dec 30, 2014 - 6:17AM

    Any forced conversion is painful. Atleast their daughters were not kidnapped, converted on a gun point, got married off and sold off later on. Is that a solace ??
    the most important reason is economics for these poor families to convert. The same reason was used by christians and is still in use by christians. As long as the families who convert do not object, their families do not file police complaints and legal cases, I dont see a problem.

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  • Ariba
    Dec 30, 2014 - 6:54AM

    What were we expecting from BJP? Its ok if india does it. Its not considered extremism.

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  • nana
    Dec 30, 2014 - 7:28AM

    Whole India needs to convert to Modism which asks the the follower to have faith in themselves, practice honesty, 100% self effort, selfless dedication to country & humanity, faith in India and its civilization, celebration of its contribution such as Yog, Dhyan (Zen), Ayurved, Math&Science.

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  • Jai Ganeshji
    Dec 30, 2014 - 7:33AM

    Muslim converts should not be allowed to suffer for the poor judgment of their ancestors brought on by physical duress and/or pecuniary benefit offered by alien Muslim Arab, Turkish and Afghan invaders.

    It is our obligation and duty to save Muslim converts by bringing them back into the true path of their ancestral religion irrespective of the carping of communal minority vote bank pandering forces in India who camouflage themselves with a secular cloak.

    Communal vote bank pandering forces in India who camouflage themselves with a secular cloak may note that freedom of religion is a democratic right and voluntary re-conversion to Hinduism is an inalienable democratic right within the realm of freedom of religion.

    To Muslims in Pakistan carping on the issue of reconversion of Muslims to Hinduism in India, my message is first amend disgraceful law that prohibits Muslims from re-converting / converting upon pain of the death penalty for apostasy while having no such prohibition when adherents of other religions are converted to Islam.

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  • Gujesh
    Dec 30, 2014 - 9:12AM

    ‘Ghar Wapsi’ by Pakistanis will solve all their problems.

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  • Dec 30, 2014 - 10:20AM

    Dipak@Gujesh:
    No way. It took us too many years to get rid of them. Now we are better of without them.

    Recommend

  • Sajjad Ashraf
    Dec 30, 2014 - 11:40AM

    Disappointed Sir, especially from a person of your exposure…

    From 28 percent minorities at the time of independence we are left a 3 only. Notwithstanding the apologists we have not done well here…

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  • nusrat
    Dec 30, 2014 - 1:15PM

    High population of minorities fell drastically down on account of separation of East Pakistan which had Hindu population of over twenty percent . The India readers are missing the point . The percentage of minorities in the western wing remained the same .

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  • nasir
    Dec 30, 2014 - 1:37PM

    Indian readers who are commenting on the piece seem so scared of the Muslim bug that short of ghar wapsi they do not feel safe in their own country. To some of them that’s the way to square with Pakistan while others heave a sigh of relief that they got rid of Muslims after a great deal of effort.
    Indian readers, however are only reacting to the article rather than responding to it. Instead of addressing any single point which the writer has highlighted and that too based on reports emanating from India, these commentators have deflected the debate and hurled usual invectives against Pakistan. One knowledgeable reader questions why the number of minorities slumped from 20 percent to 3 percent in Pakistan as of now. Well that was on account of cross-border incursions by the Indian army in 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan that led to secession of the eastern part, where most minorities lived. Indians are quick to complain against Pakistan on count of cross-border incursions in their country while completely ignoring their own history of cross-border incursions.

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  • sabi
    Dec 30, 2014 - 1:54PM

    If there is a world cup of- DENIAL Indians will easily win it on India, the perfect, with Pakistan as runner up.(lighter note)

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  • RAVI
    Dec 30, 2014 - 5:01PM

    There can be endless debates on reasons of conversions. But one thing is very clear is that, missionaries aided by foreign funds have been systematically giving baits to lower strata of people and converting them to christainity.

    In other cases, Muslim youth in Uttar pradesh India, have baited unsuspecting hindu girls and married them. they were eventually converted to islam, by force. This happened mostly in lower stara and poorer segments.

    All the conversion has happened from hinduism to other religions and has become talking point for vested insterests. None or very few reverse conversions have happened.

    These are socio economic problems, which are unique to certain regions, and were neglected earlier. But now Fringe elements are using it to their advantages.

    A film like PK should be made to highlight the problems of conversions.

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  • Sam@ABE
    Dec 30, 2014 - 5:02PM

    I have a pair of Muslim friends since childhood. They are brother and sister. The brother got married to a Hindu who converted to Islam and the sister fell in love with a Hindu and converted to Hinduism …

    Christians for 2000 years and Muslims for 1200 years have been converting Hindus … why the hue and cry now, if a few Muslims or Christians are converting of their own free will to Hinduism?

    And pray, what does the author think should be the fate of the *Murtad Fitri”?

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  • Sundar
    Dec 30, 2014 - 6:28PM

    In India there is no draconian blasphemy laws, nobody gets killed for reverting to their original faith, no young girls are kidnapped & forced. The minority percentage keeps going up unlike in Pakistan where minorities are the endangered species. Of all the people it is ridiculous to see Pakistanis cry about conversion.

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  • javed Iqbal
    Dec 30, 2014 - 9:38PM

    The basic cause of willing/forced conversion of faith is simply avoiding hunger /poverty for gaining better economic opportunities or on fear of insecurity. If State fails to deliver the poor (irrespective of faith) the religious organizations come forward on the name of humanity & offer certain incentives for conversation.

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  • Javed
    Dec 30, 2014 - 11:30PM

    Yup, I have been hearing about incredible India for quite some time. I wonder where they end up under Modi killer.

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  • wb
    Dec 31, 2014 - 11:58AM

    @Javed:

    “Yup, I have been hearing about incredible India for quite some time. I wonder where they end up under Modi killer.”

    Who is this Modi Killer? Modi’s still alive.

    Recommend

  • Tyggar
    Dec 31, 2014 - 12:43PM

    However, it lost ground in its home country and like Jainism, is mostly confined to monasteries in India.

    There are 4 million Jain in India and their cultural and economic impact on India is far larger than their numbers. Interestingly one of South India’s holiest temples is traditionally run by a Jain family.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharmasthala_Temple

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  • Abdul Malik
    Dec 31, 2014 - 2:11PM

    @sabi:
    Yeah world cup in denial sent the spacecraft to mars while your’e still masturbating to nukes and kashmir.

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  • Hari Om
    Dec 31, 2014 - 2:19PM

    When Islamic religious Law ie: Shariah is suffused with gross coercion as exemplified by the penal code in Pakistan where Blasphemy, Apostasy and Extra-Marital affairs all carry the death penalty, I find the claim that Islam’s spread in India had little to do with gross coercion impossible to believe? After all when believers are viewed as needing to be coerced in a gross manner to remain on a straight and narrow path, what makes non-believers exempt from this very same behavior?

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  • Appan
    Dec 31, 2014 - 10:17PM

    For centuries, this has been happening by force or otherwise. Conversions do not bring any fortune for the downtrodden as in their new religion be it Islam or Christianity or any other, they remain as they were in Hinduism. Separate churches for downtrodden do exist. In fact there is no provision in Hinduism for conversion. Shuddhikaran (Purification) ceremony was started by Arya Samaj. Religion shall be confined to one’s home and not brought to streets.For a majority of Indians, this is a non issue only blown up by unscrupulous politicians who have nothing else to do

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