It’s tempting to laugh off the fringe’s view of the world and Hinduism. Nathuram Godse was a great patriot and his statue must be put up in public places (Hindu Mahasabha). The conversion of Muslims to Hinduism will lead to genetic abnormalities, which is why Muslims should be packed off to Pakistan (Shiv Sena’s Uttar Pradesh chief). Russia, or more accurately Rishangaha (abode of the Rishis) was a Hindu rashtra and it is the duty of Hindus to convert Russians to Hinduism (Vishwa Hindu Parishad).
The above list — by no means a complete roundup of the week’s idiocy — are now ricocheting like an out-of-key choir. This is no laughing matter.
If you’ve been following the conversion debate that has stalled Parliament for four days now, it appears that what were once random statements are part of an orchestrated pattern. And what was once the fringe is now worryingly mainstream.
Our prime minister who issued a warning to motor-mouth MPs within his own party — the second in as many weeks — has previously weighed in: The birth of Karan in the Mahabharat and the elephant-headed Ganesh are proof that genetic engineering and plastic surgery existed in ancient India. Sushma Swaraj wants the Bhagavad Gita to be our national book and Smriti Irani wants a so-called online observation of good governance on Christmas Day.
There is a design. The statements bolster the Sangh’s view of the glorious past of Hinduism. This worldview not only looks at Hinduism through the sepia-tinted lens of nostalgia, it also believes that India’s 80.5% Hindu population is dwindling and, so, any further conversions away from Hinduism must be banned.
The Congress and Opposition parties have perhaps walked into a trap laid by the ‘ghar wapsi’ programme at Agra. Even as MPs were expressing outrage over the conversion of 300 poor Muslims to Hinduism, allegedly after being lured with promises of BPL cards, parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu let slip the real agenda: An anti-conversion law that would prevent even the voluntary conversion of Hindus to other faiths. ‘Ghar wapsi’ is a red herring.
Just to be clear, forcible conversions (including conversion by allurement) are illegal. But our Constitution grants citizens the right to follow any religion (or none at all). You are also free to follow your conscience and convert to any faith of your choosing. The architect of our Constitution, BR Ambedkar himself along with five lakh followers, converted to Buddhism in 1956, just months before his death in December.
There are interesting, if ironic, contradictions in the conversion debate. The self-proclaimed upholders of a non-proselytising faith want to convert non-Hindus. In their version of history, the caste system evolved simply as a convenient division of labour. In fact, neo-converts will now be offered a choice of caste, declares the VHP.
On the other hand, those who uphold freedom of religious belief are appalled at the sight of ‘ghar wapsi’. But if a Hindu is free to become a Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, why should the reverse process cause such alarm?
Less widely reported is the fate of a dozen Hindus who converted to Christianity in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district earlier this week. Three were reported to have ‘reconverted’ via ‘ghar wapsi’. The VHP claims they had been lured by promises of money. An enquiry will reveal some facts but vigilantism on recent converts is disquieting.
Apart from expressions of disapproval in closed-door meetings, Narendra Modi has been silent and it’s not clear whether he is upset that his development agenda is being hijacked, lacks the clout to shake off the RSS or is playing the good cop/bad cop where he will make the right noises about governance, leaving the Hindutva brigade free to pursue their agenda.
Perhaps the final irony was a government advertisement issued on a day when Parliament continued to be disrupted over conversions. Featuring a smiling Modi, the advertisement for Minorities Rights Day on December 18 quoted Mahatma Gandhi. “A civilisation can be judged by the way it treats its minorities.” Indeed it can.
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal