By Nooreen Reza
When Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in India after the 2014 general elections, many commentators on Indian politics predicted the victory would provide a boost to right-wing Hindu nationalists across the country. The BJP, founded in 1980, is itself an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization committed to the spread of “Hindu culture,” which its members believe is synonymous with the protection of Indian national identity, despite the country’s religious and cultural diversity. The philosophy of such groups has been termed Hindutva, a word coined by the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the early 20th century. While Modi, as Prime Minister, has made some half-hearted attempts to rebrand the BJP and soften its image amongst India’s religious minorities, the fact remains that the Hindutva upswing predicted by critics is indeed playing out in startling ways in India’s cities and villages today. One manifestation of Hindu nationalists’ growing confidence is the ghar wapsi campaign being conducted by groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its affiliates.
Ghar wapsi, translated as homecoming, is an outcome of the Hindutva mission to make India a 100% Hindu nation. According to the 2001 Census, Hindus make up roughly 80% of the population; the most sizable minorities, Muslims and Christians, make up 13.4% and 2.3% respectively. (The 2011 census figures on religion are not yet fully available.) For the VHP and its wings like the Bajrang Dal, this 13.4% and 2.3% is a call to action. Activists from these groups and others are on a mission to convert– in their eyes, re-convert– minorities like Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, hence welcoming them home to their true place in the Hindu fold. The thinking behind such bigotry goes back to Hindutva stalwarts’ belief in a conspiracy to weaken Hinduism and India via conversion and concessions to religious minorities. For example, the VHP’s mission statement claims that part of their founding impetus was a response to Western-funded Christian missionaries’ proselytizing activities amongst India’s low-caste populations. Similarly, the RSS leadership believes in a foreign mission to undermine India from its very inception as an independent nation by allowing the breakup of “Akhand Bharat” (“United India”) into India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947.
Unfortunately, this politics of hatred casts a long shadow over Indian history, stretching back to the 19th century and falling upon India today. Ghar wapsi is not a new phenomenon per se. A similar campaign of conversions directed mainly at Christians also occurred in late 90s and 2000s, and these conversions were often done in atmospheres of violence as members of the minority were attacked. While, to date, the ghar wapsi campaign has not largely been driven by violence, the threat of violence remains in general against targeted minorities. Look no further than a series of arson attacks on several churches in Delhi in late 2014 for an example of how minorities’ sense of security and belonging is being increasingly undermined in the country. In the absence of overt physical violence, ghar wapsi is being pushed by means of enticements. For instance, the 2014 conversions of a large group of Muslims in the North Indian city of Agra sparked a national debate about the issue, and further investigation showed that many of the converted claimed that they attended the ceremony on the promise of ration cards.
This of course raises the question, who exactly are the people ghar wapsi is targeting that can be tempted to convert in return for food and housing? In the case of Agra, the targeted were the city’s population of rag-pickers, an extremely poor occupational group of Muslims. In previous conversion campaigns, similar populations of Muslims and Christians were targeted, such as the tribal and Dalit minorities who had converted to Christianity in Western and North-East India. Why these groups? To answer this question one must consider the Hindu caste system and historical conversion of Dalits, (once known as “untouchables”), other low-caste Hindus, and repressed tribal minorities to religions like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism as an attempt to escape the crushing discrimination, poverty and social exclusion they faced as the oppressed classes of Hindu society. These conversions out of Hinduism could have happened generations ago or in the present. Regardless, it is clear that for some a change of religion was not enough to escape oppression and destitution; they still occupy the lowest socio-economic strata in society, much as their ancestors did. To be re-classified as a Dalit or tribal Hindu, rather than a Muslim or Christian, may provide a way for such people to gain employment and educational opportunities, in addition to other benefits from the government: Indian law does contain some protections, as well as a quota system in government institutions, for designated “backward” castes and tribes if they are classified as Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh. This may provide an added attraction to conversion, given the fact that lower-caste and tribal people who have been able to take advantage of these government policies have improved their socio-economic conditions to at least a small extent– unlike their Muslim and Christian counterparts who lost the official classification as a member of an oppressed group upon their conversion to a religion other than Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism.
Given the complex mix of ideologies and economic forces at play in the ghar wapsi campaign, what is its future and its implications for India? As the national debate continues, some activists and politicians from the VHP and BJP state that the ghar wapsi initiative will not stop until, hilariously, a law is passed banning conversions. This, of course, means a ban on conversions from Hinduism to another religion. VHP leader Praveen Togadia has recently celebrated the “successes” of ghar wapsi thus far, and has claimed that it will continue unabated. As long as such extremists manage to appeal to the imagination of a certain sector of the public that believes in such conspiracies as “love jihad”– a Muslim effort to steal Hindu women away via seduction– and as long as religious minorities continue to be oppressed by a system that traps them in poverty and fears of violence, the ghar wapsi campaign will have ample room to expand.
Nooreen Reza ’15 is in Davenport College and writes a monthly blog on minority rights issues in India and Pakistan.