The Supreme Court has declared that forcible conversions are a danger to the country. Is this declaration a judgment or a political statement? It seems little like the former and much like the latter. The judges of the Supreme Court sound like spokespersons for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), issuing statements without deliberating on the facts. Shouldn’t the judges have clarified and explained how conversions pose a threat to the nation?
On 14 November 2022, while admitting a petition filed by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhaya, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justice M.R. Shah and Justice Hima Kohli, directed the Government of India to file an affidavit on the issue. So far so good. But even before the Centre could respond to the petition, even before hearing the arguments of the petitioners and the respondents, how did the judges arrive at the conclusion that conversions are forced and that they are a danger to the nation?
To begin with, no one switches to another religion under duress. And even if it is conceded that such a thing happens, how is it a danger to the nation? Doesn’t this imply that the religion to which a person converts is dangerous for the nation? A Hindu can become a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh or a Buddhist. Are these four religions a danger to the nation? It is surprising that no representative of these religions has objected to this unwarranted comment of the apex court.
What is conversion? Can anyone be forced to convert? No one can deny that in certain circumstances, forcible conversion is possible. That happened in both India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Partition, and most of the victims of such forced conversions were women. But generally speaking, no one can force anyone to change his or her religion. Conversions have been happening in India from time immemorial and will continue as long as religion is in existence. Guru Govind Singh founded Sikhism and converted lakhs of Hindus to the new faith. Swami Dayanand, the proponent of Arya Samaj religion, converted lakhs of Sanatani Hindus to the Arya Samaj. These were conversions, even if they were not forced. But why did no one launch a Shuddhi Movement to win back the Hindus who had converted to Sikhism or Arya Samaj? The brahmanical Hindu organizations got cracking only after Dalits began converting to Christianity and Islam. The RSS launched an aggressive “Ghar Wapsi” movement under which Dalits who had turned Muslims or Christians were forcibly brought back to the Hindu fold. Ghar Wapsi was a campaign for effecting forcible conversions. But why did the police not take any action against it? Why did the Supreme Court not take any notice of it?
Is the comment of the Supreme Court judges that conversions are a threat to the nation just a casual statement? No, it isn’t. It is a statement which seeks to back the Varna system and is born of a brahmanical mindset. It is not something that has been said in the interest of the nation. To bolster my point, I would like to use an excerpt from Premchand’s story “Saubhagya ke Kode”. We have to keep in mind that conversions are a problem only vis-à-vis the Adivasis and the Dalits. Brahmins, Thakurs and Vaishyas have no reason to convert. Premchand’s story underlines the inhuman treatment of the Dalits at the hands of Hindus and their extreme dislike for conversions.
The excerpt goes like this: “Nathua’s parents were dead. An orphan, he lay at the door of Rai Bholanath. Raisaheb was merciful. Once in a while, he would give Nathua a paise or half. The leftovers in the home were enough for the survival of many Nathuas. He could wear the clothes discarded by Raisaheb’s sons. That was why Nathua, though orphaned, was not sad. Raisahab had freed Nathua from the clutches of a Christian. He did not regret that Nathua would have acquired an education in the mission and would have led a comfortable life. He only wanted Nathua to continue to be a Hindu. He considered the leftovers from his home more sacred than the food provided by the mission. Cleaning the rooms of his house was better than studying in the mission’s school. He should remain a Hindu, no matter in what state. Once he becomes a Christian, he will be lost forever.”
If Hindutva is opposed to conversions, the reason is that its proponents want to maintain the social status quo. Let the poor and suffering Dalits and Adivasis continue to be Hindus, let them be slaves to Hindus, let them eat the leftovers and wear discarded clothes. But they should not get the status of a human being by becoming a Muslim or a Christian.
As far as the opposition of Brahmins to conversions is concerned, there is nothing new about it. Even during British rule, the Hindutvavadis had made it clear that they were dead opposed to conversions. Ambedkar’s essays “Caste and Conversion” and “The Condition of the Convert” are testimonies to this. The Congress and the Arya Samaj had launched Shuddhi Andolan that was avowedly aimed at opposing conversions. This movement was not meant for Shuddhi (purification) of the Savaranas but was focused on the Shuddhi of the Dalits who had converted to Christianity and Islam. The objective was to confine them to their Dalit identity. Opposing the movement, Ambedkar wrote, “If the Hindu society desires to survive it must think not of adding to its numbers but increasing its solidarity and that means the abolition of caste.” But the Hindus never did that. They never gave respect to Dalits. In fact, they never accepted Dalits as their own. That is why, even today, they are not enthusiastic about the education and progress of Dalits.
Santram BA recalls an incident in his book Hamara Samaj. “After the death of the mother of Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, Bhai Parmanand went to their home to offer condolences. During the course of the conversation, the Maulana told Bhaiji, ‘Why do you people want to block the onward march of Islam by placing the roadblocks of Shuddhi and emancipation of the Untouchables in its path? You will never succeed in this.’ Bhaiji asked the Maulana why he was saying so. The Maulana replied, ‘Just look at the Bhangan passing by. I can convert her to Islam and make her my Begum today. Do you or Malaviya ji have that courage? I can marry off my daughter to any Hindu after converting him to Islam. Can any Hindu leader do this? If not, then why are you blocking the progress of Islam in the name of Shuddhi and emancipation of the Untouchables?’” (BA, Santram, Hamara Samaj, p 178)
The fact is that the talk of emancipation of the Dalits is merely superficial wish-wash on the part of Hindu leaders. Their real concern is that if Dalits and Adivasis convert to Christianity or Islam, the followers of these religions will become a majority and the Hindus will be reduced to a minority. Opposition to conversions is just an indication of the Hindus’ anxiety of turning into a minority. They are creating a smokescreen by proclaiming that conversions are a threat to the nation.
After Independence, numerous provisions were incorporated in the Constitution at the behest of the Hindu forces, especially the Brahmins, to prevent forcible conversions. Yet, many RSS-BJP state governments have promulgated draconian laws to halt conversions. In the year 1999, the RSS and the BJP had instigated a series of attacks on Christians and their churches. The pretext was Sonia Gandhi’s religion. They fabricated a mountain of phony charges against Christians. Similarly, Muslim madrasas are being targeted through a misinformation campaign, depicting them as dens of terrorists. The only objective of this campaign of calumny is to ensure that the Dalits remain downtrodden.
In 2020, the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Yogi Adityananth, promulgated a new law which provides for imprisonment for up to five years for converting Savarnas and up to ten years for converting Dalits. Savarnas rarely need to switch to a new religion, so the sentence is lighter in their case. But Dalits have a greater need to convert for the sake of leading a life of dignity, so the penalty is more severe. The idea is to keep Dalits in the Hindu fold, but as a despised community. The Brahmin and other Savarna Hindus are opposed to conversions because they are opposed to the emancipation of Dalits.
Any research on conversions would throw up startling results. It would show that Brahmins and Thakurs have formed a majority of those who switched to other religions. When India was under Buddhist rule, there was a flood of conversions to Buddhism. During Muslim rule, Islam was the most popular destination of converts. When Christians were ruling the country, they converted in droves to Christianity. And the most despicable fact is that these Hindus took their Varna system with them and polluted their new religions. That was because a large number of Dalits, too, had converted to these religions. They had switched faiths in the hope of getting equal status. But Brahmins – the perennial detractors of equality – were lying in wait for them. They had already built a cage for them in these religions. The result was that the Dalits had to make do with their status as Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.
It is most unfortunate that no Savarna Hindu supports the right to convert. Also, barring exceptions, Savarnas don’t have any respect for Dalits, Muslims or Christians. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who is called the Father of the Nation, had opposed conversions. That is why Gandhi’s maxim of “Sarvadharma Sambhav” is so dear to the Hindus. It subtly opposes conversions. When the Savarnas say that for them all religions are equal and that all religions should be respected, they are simply lying. It is them who lead attacks on mosques and churches.
The Supreme Court has issued a “fatwa” against conversions at a time when many states are voting to elect their own governments. Why should it not be seen as an attempt to polarize the Hindus against Muslims and Christians – something that would benefit the BJP politically?
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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