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Back to their basics

The BJP is raking up the conversion issue in an attempt to return to the political centre-stage. Sangh parivar cannot be allowed to define what constitutes ?Hinduism? and what does not, writes Ram Punyani.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2006 01:16 IST

The attempt to prevent conversions out of the Hindu fold is not a new phenomenon. It has, however, gained momentum during the last few years, more so in the BJP-ruled states. The excuse for introducing this ‘freedom’, through the Freedom of Religion Bill, is that millions are being converted to other religions in order to weaken the Hindu society.

In Gujarat, the issue has another dimension. This Bill grants Hindus the right to convert to Buddhism and Jainism, but not to ‘foreign’ religions, in which case permission has to be sought from the authorities. The implication is that all religions born in India — Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism — are mere sects of Hinduism, and not full-fledged religions by themselves. One may wonder why Sikhism has been left out of the Gujarat Bill. Perhaps the Bill’s drafters remembered the huge protests by a section of the Sikhs not too long ago when the RSS Sarsanghchalak had said that Sikhism was a sect of Hinduism.

Definitions apart, one also recalls that B.R. Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism. Having borne the humiliations imposed on his community by the Hindu caste system, he pointed out that Hinduism is essentially a Brahmanic theology, based on a rigid hierarchy of caste and gender. Untouchability is just one expression of the same. The Jains demanded and won the status of a minority, which was, however, vehemently opposed by the VHP. The RSS ideology also claims that the Adivasis are Hindus who went into the forests to escape forced conversion by Muslim kings. Thus, they got ‘isolated’ and became lower castes. So, the story goes, they are simply vanvasis (forest dwellers), not adivasis. It follows, then, that bringing them back into the Hindu fold is gharvapasi (homecoming), not conversion.

As such, there are many ‘Hinduisms’. Nathuram Godse followed one variety, and M.K. Gandhi another. ‘Godse Hinduism’, the Brahmanic one, which is the backbone of the RSS combine, is based on the purush sukta of the Vedas, which points out that Lord Brahma himself created castes from the body of the Virat Purush — Brahmins from the mouth, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. Most of the other religions that are claimed as off-shoots of Hinduism reject this idea as well as the caste system.

The Adivasis worship nature. In Hinduism, polytheism, tritheism, monotheism and even atheism, all run as parallel streams. However, in Buddhism, the very concept of God does not exist. While Hinduism does not have a prophet, all the other faiths do, barring that of the Adivasis, who are animists.

The word ‘Hindu’ began as a geographical category, when those coming from the West identified the people living around the river Sindhu (which they pronounced as ‘Hindu’, since the use of the ‘s’ sound is restricted in Arabic), as Hindus. Brahmanical values prevalent here came to be projected as Hinduism.

The definition of Hinduism evolved over time. As there is no prophet, the religion itself is very amorphous, meaning different things to different people. With the rise of communal politics in the late 20th century, Muslim and Hindu communalists came up from among the feudal classes. The Muslim League propounded the concept of the Islamic nation, helped by the fact that Islam did not require a new definition. The Hindu communalists, however, had to first define what Hinduism was. At this point, V.D. Savarkar put forward the definition of a Hindu as being one who regards this land as the ‘holy land’ as well as the ‘father land’. This political definition of Hindus excludes only Christians and Muslims from the Hindu fold and tries to bring under its hegemony all other Indian religions.

Why is the Sangh parivar so paranoid about people converting to other religions? While it is being said that Buddhism is also part of Hinduism, every effort is being made by the saffron brigade to thwart the attempt of Dalits to convert to Buddhism. The Adivasis are being indoctrinated into worshipping Hindu gods such as Hanuman, and elaborate rituals have been designed for ‘Gharvapasi’, a major phenomenon in Adivasi areas.

The RSS Sarsanghchalak points out that the caste system saved Hinduism — read Brahmanism — as the hierarchy delineated in Brahmanical Hinduism gives the upper castes authority over lower castes. The fear that lower castes or Adivasis will convert to other religions is perceived as a threat because the prevalent system still helps the perpetuation of the social power of the upper caste elite. Similar efforts were made by communalists in the early 20th century when Muslim communalists wanted to swell their ranks by starting a campaign of tanzim (conversion). Hindu communalists then began their own conversion campaign, and started conducting shuddhi of those who had become ‘impure’ by accepting other religions, particularly Islam.

As things stand, the Christian population of India is declining. The poorer Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis have seen a slight rise in their population. The conversion issue is a veiled threat to the minorities. When foreign funds are already regulated by the Home Ministry, why scare people by screaming about the threat of foreign money funding conversions? It seems that for the BJP, with Ayodhya unable to rustle up past fervour, stoking the conversion issue is the best bet to return to the stage.

Ram Punyani is a former professor at IIT, Mumbai