The 2015 question

When can we expect Modi to view RSS as a source of injury to his leadership?

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:December 30, 2014 12:05 am
Narendra Modi, Narendra Modi government, UPA, reconversion row, ghar wapsi campaign, RSS It should now be clear why Modi has not taken a public stand against conversions.

Can the cultural project of Hindu nationalism undermine the economic project of the Narendra Modi government? Or can the two simultaneously coexist?

The events of the last few weeks have brought these questions to the fore. On one hand, we have heard how Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lift the economy out of its UPA 2 morass. On the other, the shuddhi (reconversion) of Muslims and Christians and their ghar wapsi (homecoming) to the Hindu fold have become a battle cry for Hindu nationalists.

According to some commentators, it is the party’s fringe that has vigorously embraced the cultural project. That is a grave misunderstanding, sorely in need of correction. Can Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, by any stretch of imagination constitute the fringe of Hindu nationalism? The RSS is unquestionably the ideological fountainhead of Hindu nationalism, and its sarsanghchalak (supreme leader) is the patriarch of the Hindu nationalist family.

According to this newspaper, this is what Bhagwat said in Kolkata on December 20: “Bhule bhatke jo bhai gaye hain, unko wapas layenge. Woh log apne aap nahin gaye, unko loot kar, lalach de kar le kar gaye. Abhi chor pakda gaya hai. Mera maal chor ke paas hai. Aur yeh duniya jaanti hai. Mein apna maal wapas loonga, yeh kaunsi badi baat hai? (We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way. They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving. Now the thief has been caught and the world knows my belongings are with the thief. I will retrieve my belongings, so why is this such a big issue?).”

Bhagwat did not make an accidental assertion in a fit of absentmindedness. The RSS has repeatedly propagated the idea of conversions, because reconverting Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism is consistent with its ideological core. Economics does not drive Hindu nationalism; culture does.

Consider two of the basic propositions of Hindu nationalism. First, following Savarkar, Hindu nationalist ideologues believe that only the Hindus can be true Indian patriots, for India is both their fatherland (pitribhumi) and holy land (punyabhumi). Since India is their holy land, too, Savarkar’s definition includes the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains as Hindus, however much these communities deny that they are Hindus, as they often have. Historically, the gurdwara reform movement in Sikhism was based on the idea that Sikhs were not Hindus, despite the close historical links between the two communities.

Four religious groups fall beyond Savarkar’s definition: Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews. Hindu nationalists don’t view the Parsis and Jews as a threat for they are, in their view, assimilated, or too small in size. It is the Christians and Muslims who have consistently ignited Hindu nationalist ire. India is not their holy land, their numbers are larger, and unlike Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity are proselytising faiths.

Reconversion also follows from a second tenet of Hindu nationalism — that state power was historically used to convert Hindus to Islam and Christianity. The term “twelve hundred years of servitude (barah sau saal ki ghulami)” essentially covers the emergence of Muslim rule in various parts of India since the eighth century and British rule since 1757. According to Hindu nationalists, Islam and statecraft were fused in the former, and Christianity and governance in the latter. If now a “Hindu Raj” has come, they believe they should use the cover of state protection for reconversion.

That some coercion was used for Islamic proselytisation is beyond doubt, but professional historians have never agreed it was the only cause of conversions. They point to the severe inequities of the Hindu caste system and to the great social standing of Sufi saints, the former making the escape of the lower castes to Islam attractive and the latter, by their sheer popularity, becoming widely accepted agents of religious transformation. The Hindu nationalists have never conceded that the most popular variety of Islam in India historically took a Sufi form, led by dervishes and saints. Some exceptions notwithstanding, the Sufis have universally abhorred the idea of violence. The late Annemarie Schimmel, a leading scholar of Islam, has called Sufism the mystical version of Islam. It brought Indian Islam close to the Bhakti movement of Hinduism.

Similarly, by the time British rule stabilised in India, secular statecraft had become a norm in Britain. Even if some British district administrators protected Christian missionaries, many actively resisted them, thinking that if missionaries were allowed a free rein, unburdened by considerations of law and order, it would be impossible to govern India. If the British indeed used force to convert the Hindus over nearly two centuries of rule, how is it that when they left, not even 2 per cent of India was Christian?

In modern times, the idea of reconversion goes back to the 1920s, when the Arya Samaj launched a shuddhi movement. Mahatma Gandhi, whose Hindu religiosity was never in doubt, sternly critiqued it. He drew a distinction between institutional conversion and individual conversion, opposing all forms of the former, Muslim, Christian or Hindu, but not the latter: “I would personally like the stopping of all… shuddhis. One’s faith is a personal matter with oneself. It is open to any person of mature age to change his or her faith when and as often as he or she wishes.” Gandhi also said that conversion to Islam was a mixture of force, the humiliating degradations of the Hindu caste system and the equality of Islam: “That Islam was spread by force is a historical fact. But along with it… the potent cause of the spread of Islam was its simplicity and its special virtue of regarding all as equals. That the majority of converts to Islam were Hindus from lower classes is also a fact.” Finally, as a Hindu, Gandhi opposed shuddhi because proselytisation was not a Hindu religious idea: “In my opinion, there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism as it is understood in Christianity or to a lesser extent in Islam. The Arya Samaj has… copied the Christians in planning its propaganda.”

It should now be clear why Modi has not yet taken a public stand against conversions. He has grown up with the RSS ideology, which views shuddhi as part of its core. However, India’s prime minister has also taken a constitutional oath to be the leader of the nation, which includes millions of non-Hindus. A critical question, therefore, is: at what point would he draw red lines for the RSS? When can we expect him to view the RSS as a source of injury to his leadership?

Three possibilities can be readily envisaged. First, if they do break out, big communal riots will hurt his economic and governance agenda. (Small riots, however ethically objectionable, will not undermine him in the realpolitik of power.) Second, at least until 2016, the Rajya Sabha can create serious legislative obstacles. Executive ordinances are normally temporary; many economic reforms will, constitutionally speaking, require legislation. Third, if the Christian right in the US gets active as a result of shuddhi, it can have a serious impact on Republican support for India and damage the bipartisan consensus on improving India-US relations, a principal plank of Modi’s foreign policy.

When will Modi choose Mahatma Gandhi over Mohan Bhagwat? Will he? These questions will have to be answered before long.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ 

express@expressindia.com

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. A
    amakant
    Jan 24, 2015 at 3:36 am
    Nonsense there is no such thing as Hindu nationalism. If there was, it would be similar to the Republicans or Conservatives in USA and UK. Each of the Western democracies kick off sessions of their parliaments by reciting psalms or hymns from the Bible. So why can't majority Hindu India recite shlokas from Gita? Doesn't make them Hindu Nationalists.
    Reply
    1. A
      amakant
      Jan 24, 2015 at 3:36 am
      Nonsense there is no such thing as Hindu nationalism. If there was, it would be similar to the Republicans or Conservatives in USA and UK. Each of the Western democracies kick off sessions of their parliaments by reciting psalms or hymns from the Bible. So why can't majority Hindu India recite shlokas from Gita? Doesn't make them Hindu Nationalists.
      Reply
      1. A
        Anu
        Jan 2, 2015 at 1:47 am
        Hinduism didn't become minority even when Islam was given preferential treatment (apart from often choice of death or Islam by the sword) by the rulers for at least 500 yrs!!! So, keep on dreaming my dear friend.
        Reply
        1. B
          Bharat
          Jan 5, 2015 at 3:44 am
          Read the chapter Freedom of Religion and Conversion not synonymous in new second ed of Lies,lies and More Lies. The Campaign to Defame Hindu nationalism (ISBN 9781491738351)
          Reply
          1. D
            devender
            Jan 2, 2015 at 7:38 am
            & what your formula of checking "force" hopeful not (m/g) .. this is dose of their own medicine to Xian and Mullahs like zakir nalayak who r doing conversion onlive TV..... is any one thinks that he/she was forced converted go and file FIR ...who many FIR so far on "Ghar wapsi" ?
            Reply
            1. K
              Kunal
              Jan 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm
              So, what the author seems to be saying is that since Islam and Christianity have the structural advantage of being proseletyzing faiths, no hindrance should come in their way to proceed with their conversion agenda, induced or otherwise. But if groups within Hinduism seek to indulge in similar forms of organized conversions then Modi govt should actively clamp down on them else the big bad wolves of the Christian right in the US will disrupt US-India ties. I don't understand this bare face hypocrisy. If you are OK with conversions in principle then what's your problem with levelling the playing field for all faiths. Why is 'Ghar wapasi' such a dirty word in the mainstream narrative when missionary evangelism and dawaa is considered benign. Unless state power is abused to facilitate re-conversions why should the Modi govt have any explaining to do let alone enforcing a clamp down. Can someone care to explain?
              Reply
              1. K
                Kunal
                Jan 1, 2015 at 7:40 pm
                So, what the author seems to be saying is that since Islam and Christianity have the structural advantage of being proseletyzing faiths, no hindrance should come in their way to proceed with their conversion agenda, induced or otherwise. But if groups within Hinduism seek to indulge in similar forms of organized conversions then Modi govt should actively clamp down on them else the big bad wolves of the Christian right in the US will disrupt US-India ties. I don't understand this bare face hypocrisy. If you are OK with conversions in principle then what's your problem with levelling the playing field for all faiths. Why is 'Ghar wapasi' such a dirty word in the mainstream narrative when missionary evangelism and dawaa is considered benign. Unless state power is abused to facilitate re-conversions why should the Modi govt have any explaining to do let alone enforcing a clamp down. Can someone care to explain?
                Reply
                1. K
                  Kunal
                  Jan 2, 2015 at 10:35 am
                  So, what the author seems to be saying is that since Islam and Christianity have the structural advantage of being proseletyzing faiths, no hindrance should come in their way to proceed with their conversion agenda, induced or otherwise. But if groups within Hinduism seek to indulge in similar forms of organized conversions then Modi govt should actively clamp down on them else the big bad wolves of the Christian right in the US will disrupt US-India ties. I don't understand this bare face hypocrisy. If you are OK with conversions in principle then what's your problem with levelling the playing field for all faiths. Why is 'Ghar wapasi' such a dirty word in the mainstream narrative when missionary evangelism and dawaa is considered benign. Unless state power is abused to facilitate re-conversions why should the Modi govt have any explaining to do let alone enforcing a clamp down. Can someone care to explain?
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    Mazhar Beig
                    Jan 1, 2015 at 6:38 am
                    Neither forceful conversion nor forceful #Gharwapsi are possible. At best (orworst) it can be a symbolism. If otherwise, I have following basic questions 1. How come hardly any upper cast had converted from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity, under that so called force during Muslim or Christian rule in India of 1200 yrs. 2. Remember that, it was colonial era and still the percentage of rulers’ religion remaining a small minority. How can RSS dream of that so called recovery of treasure to make Hindus 80% to 100% possible during a democracy 3. Answer for conversion lies with cast discrimination which is still rampant in India. If #RSS and friends are really sincere it should work for abolition of cast system4. Losing out on Cast reservation benefits on conversion was and is the biggest deterrence from conversion from Hinduism. However logically it is discriminatory and is actually a reservation based on religion.Time for a mischievous question. RSS says Hindu is not a religion. So why asearch for a home within home by RSS ?
                    Reply
                    1. P
                      Peter Peter
                      Jan 2, 2015 at 5:59 am
                      Sufism is just Jihadism repackaged. This author has gone totally crazy. It is fantastic that Hindus are doing gharwapsi otherwise the other two religions are bent on extermination of Hinduism & other Dharmic religions in India.
                      Reply
                      1. P
                        Peter Peter
                        Jan 2, 2015 at 6:16 am
                        You are a jihadi & will always remain so
                        Reply
                        1. K
                          Khemka
                          Jan 1, 2015 at 7:07 pm
                          1. Read Kashmir history, how Brahmins were forcefully circised and made Muslims. No. of Butt(Bhatt), Dar(Dhar) etc. you see are Brahmin converts. Read about Allama Iqbal, his gfather was forcefully converted.2. Yes RSS is wrong in uming they can bring India back to 100% Hindu. 3. RSS is working on it. However, tell me, do Upper caste wealthy Muslims, Christians marry with Dalit converted ones ? I don't think so. People still marry within their social, financial strata. The discrimination at temples etc. needs to be finished. As we are moving to an urban society, it is dying pretty much. For ex. one of my flatmates was a lower caste and our cook was too, nobody cared one bit. 4. I agree, reservations should be based on financial conditions and it will be helpful for a lot of people.
                          Reply
                          1. V
                            Varun
                            Jan 2, 2015 at 10:27 pm
                            Americans have long back written the obituary of the Republicans owing to the demographic changes there, and with American economy looking good now expect the Democrats to come to power again in 2016. American right is finished. Modi need not worry about the Republicans, he can continue the shuddhi-karan
                            Reply
                            1. I
                              Irfan
                              Dec 30, 2014 at 7:39 am
                              Anyone is allowed to convert to any religion but only with his free will and should not be forced. Forceful conversion is of no means, neither yesterday, nor in future.
                              Reply
                              1. J
                                Janaki Narayanan
                                Dec 30, 2014 at 9:10 am
                                The sicklulars will never learn
                                Reply
                                1. P
                                  Prapur
                                  Dec 30, 2014 at 9:19 pm
                                  Welcome Them Back (Ghar Vapasi), From: Collected Works: Vol. 66, pp. 163-164 If a person through fear, compulsion, starvation, or for material gain or consideration goes over to another faith, it is a misnomer to call it conversion.Most cases of conversion have been to my mind a false coin. I would therefore unhesitatingly re-admit to the Hindu fold all such repentants without much ado. If a man comes back to the original branch, he deserves to be welcomed in so far as he may deem to have erred, he has sufficiently purged himself of it when he repents his error and retraces his steps. -- Mahatma hiI Call Myself a Sanatani Hindu I call myself a Sanatani Hindu, because I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and all that goes by the name of Hindu scripture, and therefore in avataras and rebirth; I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense, in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its presently por and distorted crude sense; I believe in the protection of cow. I do not disbelieve in murti puja. (Young India: June 10, 1921)Why I am Not a Convert Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my w being. When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. (Young India: June 8, 1925)I Disbelieve in Conversion I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never to be to undermine another's faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and, therefore, respect for them. It implies true humility. (Young India: April 23, 1931)Conversion: Impediment to Peace It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world's progress toward peace. Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man? (Harijan: January 30, 1937)No Such Thing as Conversion I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the word. It is a highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbour as to his faith which I must honour even as I honour my own. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Musalman, or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own. (Harijan: September 9, 1935)
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Ramyavaran Vasu
                                    Dec 30, 2014 at 9:56 pm
                                    A well oiled argument of a Maculayte who thinks India as a country will not survive if it does not salute the English leaders across the globe and hence should do everything to please them- which includes the fact that they can keep converting Hindus but Hindus should never ever stand up for their right. In the eyes of such intellectulas !!!!!! Hindus are not Human beings at all - anything and everything can be heaped on them and they should queitly learn to live with it. You trample upon their religious sensitivities, you kill them across the borders, you convert them and make them irrelevant Geo-politically and then these intellectuals will enjoy the taste of their blood spilled - shame on you guys!!!
                                    Reply
                                    1. a
                                      amoghavarsha.ii
                                      Dec 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm
                                      after 100% conversion to hindus, will india become super power greater then all the very next day? If yes, start and make it compulsory Hindus only country.
                                      Reply
                                      1. A
                                        ankit
                                        Dec 30, 2014 at 10:21 am
                                        The author dances around the question of continued conversion of Hindus by Christian missionaries all over India. After all, it is not by a matter of chance that the percentage of Christians in many parts of India, including Andhra Pradesh and trbial areas like Jharkhand, has increased dramatically over last couple of decades. It is the bigotry of the people like Mr Varshney, who treat Hindu conversion differently from a Christian conversion, that has led to secularism being such a reviled word in the general poce. Good riddance!
                                        Reply
                                        1. D
                                          Dhurinder Bhatwadekar
                                          Dec 30, 2014 at 5:06 am
                                          'some coercion'? Remember Jiziya? Goa inquisition? Present day Christian conversion continues, relatively coercion-free, mostly of tribals. Now it may be argued that many of the Adivasis aren't really Hindu per se - but then the RSS doesn't believe in such nuances, do they?As for why Modi doesn't do anything about them, don't act so surprised now! The RSS got him the majority. And those pesky 'small riots' you mention? That is how they did it. Did the political pundits really start believing their own hype about how the Indian electorate had risen beyond religion and caste this time? Funny!
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Ansuman Prusty
                                            Dec 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm
                                            Now reading these articles from the so called seculars, I could understand why Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated and why India was ruled by Arabic invaders. These people make a lot of hue and cry about conversion from Hindu to Christianity but are silent on the reverse conversion. With more such articles from these seculars, more and more people will feel sympathetic towards RSS.
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments