Ghar Wapsi, which means ‘returning home’, is a growing trend in India. Hindutva outfits have long been sweating profusely worrying about the people who choose to leave Hinduism and adopt another religion.
Of course, their idea that it is merely Hindus converting to other religions is false. Perhaps the Hindu conversions are more noticeable because Hindus are the majority in this country. Also, in the guise of inclusion, many tribal religions have been brought under the Hindu umbrella. It is rather easy to state that tribal gods were the same with merely different names or that they were avatars of Hindu gods.
This, in turn, leads to awkward moments like the one that Smriti Irani, our very uneducated HRD minister, recently found herself in when she tried to excuse the BJP’s high-handed behavior with JNU students. She read out from a pamphlet that venerated not Durga but the ‘demon’ Mahishasura, whom Durga killed.
Now the Asur tribe (classified as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group), considers Mahishasura as a blessed king, whom no man or god could kill. They see Durga as an invader and the six days of Durga Puja are days when they mourn their forefathers. Interestingly, Mysuru is named after Mahishasura. It was named Mahishasurana Ooru (Mahishasura’s Country).
That is the problem with claiming to be so all-inclusive. If in truth you are all-inclusive, then you must make space for people to worship as, when and whom they please. However, to pretend to be inclusive and then force people to only worship in a manner (or only worship those) that pleases you, is a rather low-blow.
But let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s say that all these different tribes are indeed Hindus. Why are conversions happening? The Hindutva brigade has long stated that people convert to Islam because they wish to be polygamous. The last time a census was taken on the matter was in 1961; it showed that tribals were the most polygamous (15.25%), followed by Buddhists (7.9%), Hindus (5.8%) and then Muslims (5.78%). But those stats are old so, what the hell, let’s just say that Hindus are converting to Islam to get more wives.
Now if someone is converting to another religion for personal reasons (and I’m assuming wives fall in the ‘personal’ category), it is a choice they’re making and accepting. We might have a problem with their reasons but we have no right to interfere. If indeed conversions to Islam are taking place because of polygamy, the people who have a right to be offended are Muslims. I’m sure Muslims will not appreciate their religion being used thusly.
The other group whom the Hindutva lot claims to fear mightily are the Christians. This is because Christians work with the poor and weak sections of society, who then go on to accept the religion. And let’s face it – why wouldn’t they? In this corruption-filled land, the poor and marginalized have nowhere to turn. If they’re offered education and treated like equals instead of untouchables, they will obviously adopt a religion that accepts them.
There is a group of people who claim that people convert to Christianity due to greed. Alright, let’s examine that. Poor people who have been neglected by everyone adopt a different religion because it brings them food – who does that hurt? Or people adopt a different religion because they see that it’ll give their kids an education, something they can’t afford otherwise – which brings us back to using a religion for personal reasons – it’s a choice they make. No one else gets a say in it. The best way to counter that would be to help the poor and downtrodden.
However, let’s rewind a bit and look closer. Kandhamal, Orissa is a good place to start. Home to the Kandha and Pana tribals, who are treated as untouchables by Hindus, Kandhamal has seen a steady rise in conversions to Christianity among the Pana tribals. In December 2007, these Christians got a permit and then erected a Christmas arch across a road. Around 150-200 Hindus arrived and demanded it be taken down as it was erected in the same place where the Durga Puja festivities were held. The crowd created a ruckus and looted and destroyed shops of Christian shopkeepers. Three people died.
Then a certain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati decided he wanted to visit the riot spot to boost “the morale of the majority community”. He was stopped by a bus belonging to Sugriba Singh, BJD Member of Parliament. Supporters of both sides clashed and a curfew was imposed. However, Christians were attacked around Christmas time; over 50 were reported killed while 730 houses and 95 churches were burnt. Hundreds of displaced Christians were living in relief camps.
On August 23, 2008, Laxmanananda was shot down by Maoist insurgents. Here, it must be noted that Maoists do not subscribe to any religion. However, incited by Manoj Pradhan, state legislator and BJP politician, from 25-28 August, Hindu mobs set fire to Christian settlements, killing a further 45 people and destroying around 1,400 Christian homes. Around 18,500 Christians fled to refugee camps.
Sabyasachi Panda, leader CPI (Maoist), accepted that they killed Laxmanananda due to his anti-Maoist speeches. Despite this, Christians were still attacked by Hindutva groups, most notably Bajrang Dal. Meanwhile, Christians found no refuge in the relief camps either as VHP goons barged in and took away supplies and attacked the Christians. Outside the camps, women and teens were raped and killed. People were burned alive. A nun was raped and paraded naked on the streets in the presence of police.
Terrible, terrible stuff, but let’s focus on the little details for a bit. Survivors and attackers from Kandhamal spoke about how before being beaten and/or killed, Christians were told to recant their religion, which most refused to do. So, people who knew they were going to die or get severely injured refused to leave Christianity despite having converted only due to greed. Something’s not right here.
Well, think of it – if you convert to a religion because it brings you some benefit wouldn’t it be easy-peasy to give it up when required? Why would you choose to die for a religion you don’t believe in?
Or think of the other accusation over conversions – that those belonging to minorities befriend people and then convert them. Once I was faced with a very angry person who claimed that he almost converted to Christianity because he went for guitar classes to a church. Huh? That’s a ridiculous statement, but a statement that can be made only by someone from a majority community. People who belong to minority communities in India have lived their lives being friends with, celebrating the festivals of and learning the customs of the Hindus. If all it took to convert someone was befriending them, there would be no minority religions in India.
Wait; what a long detour we’ve had. Let’s go back to the topic at hand – ghar wapsi. In July 2015, the VHP stated that 33,975 people were reconverted to their “original faith” while 48,651 people were “prevented” from converting.
Those are some pretty impressive numbers. One could almost be floored by the success of ghar wapsi if not for the fact that plenty those who reconverted stated that they were compelled to do so.
In December 2014, 57 Muslim rag-pickers were reconverted to Hinduism by the Bajrang Dal in Agra. However, the Muslims stated that they went to the event because they were led to believe that they’d be registered as BPL families. Once they realized what was happening, they felt they had no choice but to go ahead as they feared they’d face violence. Once the ghar wapsi was over, one of the men said he hopes things “would return to the way they were”.
On 29 December 2014, the VHP faced major embarrassment in Bodhgaya as 42 families of Christian Manjhis refused to turn up for a ghar wapsi organized for them. They approached district administration and were provided security; also, the venue of the reconversion was moved further away from the Christians’ homes. A Christian Manjhi said, ““We are happy being Christians. We did not succumb to VHP pressure to reconvert.”
VHP General Secretary Champat Rai said, “All minorities in India have converted from Hinduism. They should accept their original faith.”
There have been allegations that poor people from minorities have been lured with promises or threatened with dire consequences. Hindutva groups have also tried to sweeten the deal by saying they’ll allow reconverts to choose which caste of Hinduism they’ll belong to – which goes against the caste principle completely, as you’re born in your caste (the belief being that the actions of your previous life decide the caste of your present one).
In February, the Supreme Court ruled that if a person reconverts to being a Hindu SC, he or she will get reservation benefits if the community accepts him or her after the reconversion, which seems to be a somewhat odd requirement. It speaks less about a person’s religious feelings and more about social appeasement.
Those indulging in this ghar wapsi brouhaha claim that nobody protests against conversions of Hindus; that is not true, as they do it repeatedly. The reason it might not be highlighted in the media is because people are converting because they want to. That’s no story to report. However, to scare people into accepting Hinduism is news-worthy, so it makes the news and causes a debate.
With our current Prime Minister having come from a hardcore Hindutva group, these right-wing goons have gained greater courage than before. Minorities feel increasingly unsafe. Just a few days ago, a church was attacked in Chhattisgarh, men were beaten and women were stripped. This, along with threatening statements by religious and political leaders, have made ghar wapsi a highly controversial issue.
“Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here,” Uttar Pradesh Dharm Jagran Samiti head Rajeshwar Singh said in December 2014.
And that, in essence, is what ghar wapsi is – a forcible home-coming; those who wish to stay in their new homes will be chased out of the country because, well, how dare they not wish to return home! It is a mistaken belief that India belongs only to the Hindus.
It is then rather amusing to see these self-proclaimed messiahs of Hinduism allege persecution when their acts are highlighted or questioned publicly.
So far, Hindutva groups have targeted Muslims and Christians, but let’s not assume they’ll stop there. Sikhs and Buddhists too will then need to be brought back into the fold or chased away. And after that, who knows? Jains? Parsees? ‘Ancient Aliens’ believers?