Dale Luis Menezes and Amita Kanekar
With the BJP coming to power in the last Lok Sabha elections, we have witnessed increasing violence against religious minorities and their places of worship. There has been no action to curb the violence, nor even a statement of condemnation from the Centre. Instead, in the last few months, we have a new campaign: ‘ghar wapsi’, again targeted at the religious minorities: Christians and Muslims are being asked to ‘return’ to Hinduism. How is one to understand this new movement, right in the middle of all the violence? What are its origins? And what is its agenda? To answer these questions, we think it would be useful to focus on a few events of the past.
The first event is that of 1 January, 1818. On this day, the armies of the Peshwa and the British confronted each other in the third and final Anglo-Maratha War, in which the Peshwa was defeated. It was a heroic victory, since the British army comprised only a small regiment of 250 cavalry and 500 infantry, both dominated by men of the Mahar community, while the Peshwa had about 20,000 cavalry and 5000 infantry. Yet, on this day, in the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune, the Peshwa army was routed.
The important thing to note is that this British victory was also a Mahar victory; it was the Mahars who ended Peshwa rule. This critical fact is, of course, never mentioned in our history books. Our school textbooks ignore the Mahars and write of the fall of the Peshwas as a tragedy; such is the nationalist version of events. But for the Mahars, and others oppressed and enslaved as untouchables under the Peshwai, the 1818 battle was a successful war of liberation.
For the dominant castes the colonial period was all about humiliation and loss of power, but for many others it was about the beginnings of liberation and justice. For instance, Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Malabar in 1498 is considered by many Dalits to be a milestone event in the story of their liberation (Nigam, 2006, p. 182). Our nationalist histories ignore this.
The Movement Initiated by the Arya Samaj
The second event we would like to recall is the birth of the Arya Samaj, sometime in the 1880s. According to its founder, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Hinduism had been corrupted and needed reform. That is, Hinduism had strayed away from its supposed Vedic origins and had to be brought back to its former purity and glory. Reform was also required, said the Arya Samaj, to exorcise casteism from the Hindu religion, though as the movement developed its anti-caste claims were seen to be limited. According to Maria Misra (2008, pp. 70-3) however, this reform was a reaction to many untouchable and lower-caste communities embracing Christianity, as well as to the demand from certain sections of Muslims for a greater representation in politics.
The real problem was that the British had introduced electoral politics in India, in which representation was provided for on the basis of religious community. As Misra points out, that the leaders of the Arya Samaj had realized that, “Christian conversion among low caste, untouchable and poor Muslim groups would weaken the power of Hindus in north India”. In other words, if the flow of conversions to Christianity and Islam had to be stopped, the blatant violence of caste-based discrimination had to be attacked. The critique of caste by caste Hindus, therefore, was a strategic act to perpetuate upper-caste dominance.
What was this reform that the Arya Samaj brought about? One of the main components of it was the programme of shuddhi, an old ritual re-invented by the Arya Samajists. Shuddhi had been used earlier to purify caste Hindus after coming in contact with supposed agents of defilement or pollution. But the Arya Samajists gave it a new form and the shuddhi ritual became the tool of conversion, ‘purifying’ the former Christians or Muslims to make them Hindus, and thus also making a statement about the ‘pollution’ inherent in the non-Hindu religions.
Learning from Christian missionaries, the Arya Samaj also set up public health and educational facilities, and encouraged a modicum of social mobility and social respect within the four-fold varna system. As a result they were quite successful in their campaign of conversion, especially in the Punjab.
‘Ghar wapsi’ does not mean ‘re-conversion’ but ‘conversion’
Although there does not seem to be a direct link between the Mahar victory at Bhima Koregaon and the activities of the Arya Samaj, there is an important connection which tie them also to the ‘ghar wapsi’ campaign. The connection is the mass rejection of the so-called ‘ghar’. While the Mahars of Bhima Koregaon had greater affinity for the aims and culture of the British than those of the Peshwas, the Arya Samaj campaign of yesteryears, just like the ‘ghar wapsi’ one of today, is a recognition of a mass desire to reject Hinduism.
But the truth is that many of the people who underwent shuddhi in the past, or ‘ghar wapsi’ today, were never in the Hindu fold in the first place. So there is no question of ‘wapsi’. The Dalitbahujan communities of the subcontinent have always followed their own unique religious traditions, many of which, as Kancha Ilaiah (1996) has argued, do not have a link with those of caste Hindus. This difference may be eroding today, thanks to the growth in Hindutva propaganda and the widespread Hinduizing of the polity, but it is certainly erroneous to refer to Dalitbahujans of the past as ‘Hindu’. This identification of Dalitbahujans as Hindus happens not because of religious reasons, but political ones.
Thus, ‘ghar wapsi’ is not about ‘re-conversion’ to Hinduism, but ‘conversion’. This will of course be contested by all the new ‘anti-conversion’ laws which have been in demand of late, some of which explicitly declare that conversion to Hinduism is fine because it is actually re-conversion. Along with shuddhi and ‘ghar wapsi’, these laws form part of the arsenal to maintain the demographic of caste Hindus in politics.
The RSS’ ‘ghar wapsi’ project especially targets the Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC population, says Ilaiah (Asian Age, 4 January, 2015), who today are embracing ‘evangelical Christianity’ and ‘prayer groups’ in large numbers. He makes the important point that, although many Dalitbahujans today are attracted to evangelical Christianity rather than the Buddhism embraced by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the fact is that ever since the day when Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in Nagpur, conversion became a spiritual and democratic right for the Dalitbahujan people. And this is what all these Hindutva movements – anti-conversion, shuddhi, ‘ghar wapsi’ – recognize, that thousands are just waiting to leave the ‘ghar’.
The reason is not difficult to fathom. Conversions to Christianity and Islam create an opportunity to escape caste. Jaffrelot (2011, p. 205) makes a similar argument: before the coming of the British many artisanal castes had embraced Islam to escape caste-based discrimination. We do not by any means claim that there is no casteism to be found among Christian and Muslim communities of South Asia. But both Christianity and Islam, in principle or theologically, uphold the equality of believers, providing scope for fighting casteism within the faith.
All Conversions are not Forced
One of the arguments made in favour of ‘ghar wapsi’, is that all conversions to Christianity and Islam were ‘forced’. In the context of Goa, this is of course a reference particularly to the Christianization of its populace during Portuguese rule. Within Goa, meanwhile, we have been fed on stories about how all of us were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese in one fell swoop, and also how ‘forced conversions’ to Christianity were effected by throwing cooked rice into the wells of Hindus, polluting them and forcing their owners to become Christian. Although claiming to be about Goa, it is clear that this latter story is only about brahmins and other brahmanized castes of Goa, given the references to private wells and pollution. Even so, does this story really speak of conversions that were forced, or rather excommunication from Hinduism enforced by the caste authorities? In such conditions, what was Christianity but a refuge to the excommunicated? It would not be the first time that brahmanical traditions of caste pollution and untouchability resulted in people leaving for more humane belief systems; they have been doing it right from the time of the Buddha, 2500 years ago.
There is now copious documentation to attest to a history of voluntary conversions that resulted from caste-based conflicts. Ângela Barreto Xavier, for example, finds in her study of sixteenth-century Chorão that voluntary conversions took place most commonly among the most depressed sections of society, for whom it was a form of political dissent. Among the middle castes, however, the privileges and facilities offered to Christians were a great attraction, while among the elites – who had the most advantages in the old order – conversions were mostly either forced, or portrayed as forced so that their old positions in the village hierarchy remained unchanged (Xavier, 2007: pp. 269–95). Fr. Anthony D’Costa had meanwhile argued as early as 1965, through archival work on Jesuit letters, for genuine spiritual conviction in converting to Christianity in sixteenth-century Goa (see D’Costa, S.J., 1965, p. 50). The millions (both Catholic as well as non-Catholic) who flock to venerate the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, said to have been one of the leading proselytizers of his time, might argue that, for a multitude of people across castes and religion today, the history of Christianity is not marked by a memory of violence. But popular memory aside, historical evidence shows conversions took place in Goa for a variety of reasons – from state pressure and incentives, to caste oppression and spiritual search.
The ‘ghar wapsi’ campaign thus exposes a longer history of caste-based and anti-minority violence that is both physical and intellectual. The launch of the present campaign is of course linked to the rise of Hindutva politics, and more recently to the coming of the BJP to power, but limiting it to these recent events negates both the history of violence and the consolidation of upper caste power in the subcontinent that has been going on for at least a century.
(A version of this essay was originally published in Gulab [February, 2015] in Romi Konkani. The authors wish to thank the editor of Gulab, Fausto V. da Costa, for allowing this translation and re-publication with some modifications, also Gaurav Somwanshi, whose Facebook status update is borrowed for the title, and finally our friends at the Al-Zulaij Collective, for reading the essay and offering important suggestions).
D’Costa, S.J., Anthony, The Christianisation of the Goa Islands, 1510-1567, 1965.
Ilaiah, Kancha, Why I am not a Hindu, 1996.
Jaffrelot, Christophe, “India: The Politics of (Re)Conversion to Hinduism of Christian Aboriginals”, in Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, 2011.
Misra, Maria, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion, 2008.
Nigam, Aditya, The Insurrection of Little Selves, 2006.
Xavier, Ângela Barreto, “Disquiet on the Island: Conversion, Conflicts and Conformity in Sixteenth-Century Goa.” Indian Economic & Social History Review vol. 44, no. 3 (2007): 269–95.
Dale Luis Menezes is based at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and Amita Kanekar is the author of A Spoke in the Wheel, a novel on the life of the Buddha.
Image courtesy: the internet.