God and mammon: Religious Conversation Controversy in India

Kolkata, Patralekha Chatterjee(AsianAge): Good governance seems to be all about seeking coherence through confusion. How else do you explain the curious case of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party where one set of people pay homage to good governance while another set cannot stop proclaiming the virtues of “ghar wapsi” (homecoming) a euphemism for re-conversion of erstwhile Hindus to Hinduism.

“Mass conversions are typically successful where there is a huge growth deficit. People often convert because it is perceived that embarrassing another religion will bring benefits.”  

धर्म जागरण मंच के नेता राजेश्वर सिंह ने विवादित बयान दिया है. राजेश्वर सिंह ने कहा है कि साल 2021 के अंत तक भारत को मुस्लिम और ईसाइयों से मुक्त करा लेंगे. राजेश्वर सिंह पश्चिमी यूपी में आरएसएस के इस संगठन धर्म जागरण मंच के अध्यक्ष हैं. राजेश्वर ने विवादित बयान देते हुए कहा है कि भारत में मुस्लिम और इसाइयों को रहने का हक नहीं है.
धर्म जागरण मंच के नेता राजेश्वर सिंह ने विवादित बयान दिया है. राजेश्वर सिंह ने कहा है कि साल 2021 के अंत तक भारत को मुस्लिम और ईसाइयों से मुक्त करा लेंगे. राजेश्वर सिंह पश्चिमी यूपी में आरएसएस के इस संगठन धर्म जागरण मंच के अध्यक्ष हैं. राजेश्वर ने विवादित बयान देते हुए कहा है कि भारत में मुस्लिम और इसाइयों को रहने का हक नहीं है.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks and tweets incessantly about development and good governance, but then someone like Yogi Adityanath, the perennially controversial BJP MP from Gorakhpur, talks about “ghar wapsi” and raises the political temperature. Over the past week, Yogi Adityanath has been spearheading the Sangh Parivar’s agitation to re-convert to Hinduism those who had changed their religion.

Predictably, such evangelism has sparked a backlash. Yogi Adityanath says those opposing it are against Hindutva. There are plans to expand the campaign across the country. But, for the time being, the focus states appear to be Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politically powerful but poor. Fifty-seven Muslim families in Agra, who were re-converted to Hinduism on December 8, allege that they were misled into believing that the programme was for registering them as below poverty line (BPL) families, and not for religious conversion. The main accused in the alleged forced conversion has been arrested.

The Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh has denied permission to the RSS-backed Dharma Jagran Manch’s controversial mass conversion programme in Aligarh, originally scheduled for December 25. On the concluding day of a recent Sant Samagam (congregation of sadhus) in Vaishaligarh, Bihar, the Dharma Jagran Manch called upon sadhus and sants to campaign to “re-convert” people back to Hinduism. The congregation at Vaishaligarh a Buddhist tourist destination in north Bihar’s Vaishali district, 60 km from Patna was presided over by Yogi Adityanath.

Unsurprisingly, all this has had an effect in New Delhi. There is uproar in Parliament. The Opposition has been stalling the Rajya Sabha over the issue and demanding that the Prime Minister clarify his stand on the subject and crack down on BJP MPs who have voiced support for the re-conversion drive. The Dharma Jagran Manch called off its Aligarh plan only after the Prime Minister issued a warning.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley said in Rajya Sabha that there are two options ban all religious conversions or ban all forcible religious conversions. “The government is ready for both. It is up to you (MPs) to choose.”
I would argue that there is a third option don’t ban conversion; make it irrelevant.

Religious conversion has always been a politically explosive issue. Hindu groups have often accused Christian missionaries and Muslims of converting poor tribals and dalits with promises of a better life. Thus, “ghar wapsi”. In many instances, these conversions and re-conversions involve inducement. Five Indian states have laws against conversions carried out by force or allurement. However, implementation of these laws has been arbitrary.

The proselytisers — be they Hindu, Christian, Muslim or of any other faith have a clear agenda. The key issue, however, is not that evangelists succeed, but why they succeed. Mass conversions are typically successful where there is a huge development deficit. People often convert because it is perceived that embarrassing another religion will bring benefits otherwise not accessible. It is a different story that the “better life” sometimes turns out to be a chimera.

A telling example is that of 53 Christian families in Uttar Pradesh’s Barhalganj area. A group called the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) has targeted them for a “ghar wapsi” programme. The media focus has been on the slugfest between the administration, which has vowed not to allow any conversion programmes, and the Hindu hardline groups who are determined to go ahead.

But the really interesting part of the story is why these families converted to Christianity in the first place. The Hindu Yuva Vahini concedes that Christian missionaries got their main chance after floods ravaged Barhalganj on the border of Gorakhpur and Azamgarh districts in 1998. Many houses were destroyed, farmland was submerged and people were forced to live out in the open. Many were on the brink of starvation. The relief work done by Christian missionaries reportedly spurred several Hindus to adopt Christianity.

Where was the local administration when all this happened? What did it do to help the flood-affected in their crisis?
Or take the case of the infamous re-conversion programme at Agra. The 57 families who allege that they were tricked, are ragpickers living in mud huts. They say the BPL cards they were promised would make them eligible for a host of sops, including subsidised schooling and healthcare.

But what if the state delivered on its promises and basic amenities reached everyone, irrespective of caste or creed? Would such conversions make any sense in such a context?

The biggest battlegrounds for conversions and re-conversions are often the country’s poorest regions. Those who move back and forth from one religion to another in these parts are often desperately seeking to escape grinding poverty, illiteracy and lack of opportunities. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad website talks about the progress its “Religious Regeneration Programme” has made. The programme is formulated “to make the converted groups reassess the values of the religion and culture which their forefathers were compelled to leave and to attract them to their original way of life with due social respect.” As a preliminary step, 150 problematic and backward regions have been selected to implement the programme.

In the last few years “active work” has begun in as many as 15 districts across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The results in these districts are “highly encouraging,” the site claims.

But competitive evangelism does not make for development. It only exacerbates tension. “Development is the only solution to all problems,” Narendra Modi said while addressing a recent election rally in Sanghar, Jammu. What about making that a reality, across the country? That would rob conversion of its insidious promise.

Editor’s Note: The author  Patralekha Chatterjee is a senior Indian journalist and activist who focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com