While Hindu nationalism developed a strong opposition to Islam in the wake of the Khilafat movement, which was largely responsible for the creation of the RSS in 1925, this “ism” first crystallised as a reaction to Christianity — and has remained focused on this other “non-Indian” religion. Indeed, the Hindutva movement harks back to the Punjab-based Arya Samaj, whose founder, Swami Dayananda, defended Hinduism against the missionaries who denigrated a “polytheist” and “idolatrous” creed. The swami, fearing that Christian priests would reduce the number of Hindus (at a time when demographic data was becoming available thanks to the census), was the first to invent a ritual of reconversion.
Since one is “born” a Hindu, Hinduism ignores conversion. Swami Dayananda, therefore, had to resort to a procedure of “purification” of the upper castes, known as shuddhi, in order to endow Hinduism with a ritual permitting what is know as “conversion” in the religions of the book — to join a body of believers and adhere to a new faith. Paradoxically, Hinduism started imitating the religion that some of its leaders rejected most vociferously, Christianity, in order to resist it more effectively.
This semitisation of Hinduism reflected the sense of emergency created by the official figures: From 1881 to 1911, the Hindu population in Punjab went down from 92,52,295 to 87,73,621, or from 43.8 per cent to 36.3 per cent, as opposed to an increase from 1,16,62,434 to 1,22,75,477 (50.7 per cent), and from 33,699 to 1,99,751 (0.8 per cent of the population, but an increase of 593 per cent) for Muslims and (mostly Dalit) Christians, respectively.
Some of the Arya Samajist supporters of the shuddhi movement claimed that Hindus were a “dying race”, as U.N. Mukherji wrote in 1909. As early as the 19th century, conversions were seen, not as the sum of individual decisions, but as collective migrations weakening the majority community. They were perceived as stratagems designed by the churches to attract the poor on the basis of material promises.
But Lala Lajpat Rai, in 1909, considered the ball to be in the court of the upper castes and believed that they could retain Dalits in the fold of Hinduism only by reforming their religion. Swami Shraddhananda developed the Shuddhi Sabha in this vein and concentrated his efforts on Dalit “purification” in order to dissuade them from converting to Christianity. Paradoxically, his plans were resisted by Congressmen, like Madan Mohan Malaviya, who did not try to accommodate Dalits within Hinduism.
The reading of conversion as a communal game of numbers explains some Congressmen’s reservations about the idea of changing one’s religion. During the Constituent Assembly debates, Article 25, which, in its final form, guarantees the right to “propagate” one’s religion, was discussed almost as much as the issue of language. The advocates of Hindi were also those who refuted the very idea of conversion.
Congress leaders are credited for seeing Article 25 through. Paradoxically, in the 1950s, missionaries were targeted in many Congress-governed states. Madhya Pradesh is a case in point. Chief Minister R.S. Shukla commissioned the Niyogi report, which pointed out in 1956 that foreign missionaries and funds were increasing, before concluding: “Evangelisation in India appears to be a part of the uniform world policy to revive Christendom for re-establishing Western supremacy and is not prompted by spiritual motives. The objective is apparently to create Christian minority pockets with a view to disrupting the solidarity of the non-Christian societies, and the mass conversions of a considerable section of Adivasis with this ulterior motive is fraught with danger to the security of [the] state.”
While the Constitution seemed to allow conversion, traditionalist Congressmen, therefore, presented it as anti-national. Since then, this issue has been exploited by the Sangh Parivar. The proportion of Christians remains just above 2 per cent, but the Hindutva movement has identified them as posing a threat to India because of their “denationalisation” impact, which, in their view, was evident from the separatism of tribal populations like the Nagas. This conception, well in tune with the equation of India with Hinduism, resulted in the creation, first, of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) in 1952, which was intended to resist the missionaries’ activities among the tribals of Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, and second, of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (1964). Indeed, the creation of the VHP, which had been conceived in the early 1960s by S.S. Apte, an RSS leader, and Swami Chinmayananda, was precipitated in August 1964 by the announcement of the visit of Pope Paul VI to Bombay on the occasion of the International Eucharistic Congress in December.
The VHP emulated the Christian forces it intended to fight and, therefore, made Hinduism even more analogous to the religion it criticised. One of its first “aims and objectives” was: “To establish an order of missionaries, both lay and initiate, for the purpose of propagating dynamic Hinduism representing the fundamental values of life…” Ironically, conversion became a legitimate activity for only one creed.
In the late 1960s, the Jana Sangh asked for a law against conversions. When it came to power in Madhya Pradesh, by means of a shortlived coalition in 1967-69, it had a law passed called the Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam (Religious Freedom Act), 1968, which prescribed a punishment of two years’ imprisonment for persons involved in conversions that did not strictly comply with the principle of voluntary change of religion. Odisha passed a similar law in 1967. But the question reached the top of the national agenda 10 years later, when Jana Sangh members, part of the Janata government at the Centre, attempted to have a similar law passed in Parliament. The Freedom of Religion Bill was aimed at preventing anyone from “converting or attempting to convert, directly or otherwise, a person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by fraud or blackmail or deception, or by whatever other fraudulent means”. This bill was not passed because of the opposition of other components of the Janata party, including the Socialists.
Today, the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha and may revisit this subject in the context of an increasingly adverse attitude towards Christianity — as evident from the suspicious fire that gutted a Delhi church and the questioning of Christmas as an Indian holiday. The new law could draw its inspiration from the one that was passed in Gujarat in 2003, according to which those who want to convert must first get the district magistrate’s authorisation.
If such a law is passed, the judiciary will have to appreciate whether it complies with Article 25 of the Constitution. But it will also have to say whether so-called reconversions fall within the ambit of the law. Are the tribals of Chhattisgarh — one of the VKA’s earliest targets — or Dangs in Gujarat returning or being converted to Hinduism when they are subjected to ghar wapsi rituals? Here is our last paradox: In some cases, Hindu organisations may not be allowed to continue with their proselyte activity under an anti-conversion law.
But the main lesson of this long series of paradoxes lies elsewhere, in the fact that, while Hindus represent more than 80 per cent of the population, Hindu nationalists, who equate Indianness with Hindudom, continue to exploit the “dying-race” syndrome to polarise society and imitate the clearly “un-Hindu” proselyte tradition of the semitic religions. And some SCs and STs are still candidates for conversion, because the reforms Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhananda recommended more than a century ago are still unachieved — partly because of the conservative attitude of pre- and post-Independence Congressmen.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace