When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on Saturday strongly defended the Sangh’s conversion campaign, it only confirmed what its Dharma Jagran Samanvay Samiti (DJSS) has been insisting. The heated exchanges in Parliament all of last week as the Opposition tried to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi to commit on the religious conversion issue notwithstanding, this is the busiest time of the year for the Samiti. And December 23, the day the Winter Session ends, marks the start of its mass programmes linked to Ghar Wapsi across the country — like every year. Perhaps the only place missing this time out of at least 300 on its list would be Aligarh.
DJSS insiders laugh at the suggestion that the Aligarh “controversy” made them pause. Instead, they say, the only thing that went wrong in Aligarh was that DJSS convenor for western Uttar Pradesh Rajeshwar Singh, also an RSS pracharak, was too outspoken.
“There was less work, more controversy,” as another pracharak puts it.
So the DJSS “projects”, planned for December 23-31 every year, stand as scheduled. While the dates coincide with Christmas Day, the DJSS insists their programmes have got nothing to do with it. They picked December 23 because that’s the day in 1926 that Swami Shraddhanand, an Arya Samaji leader involved in “reconverting” Muslims to Hinduism, was killed in Delhi.
Before Ghar Wapsi, the DJSS creates the “atmosphere” for it, including through Hindu Sammelans up to the village level in places where Hindus have allegedly converted to Islam or Christianity, distribution of Hindu literature and iconography, making “converts” aware of their “Hindu ancestry”, and by persuading leaders of various Hindu castes to accept with dignity if someone returns to Hinduism.
The DJSS was started by the RSS in 1996 when it was felt that the VHP, assigned the same task, had got reduced to an organisation fighting for a Ram temple at Ayodhya. So the brief to the DJSS was clear and four-fold: “Hindu Jagao (Make Hindus Aware), Hindu Bachao (Protect Hindus), Hindu Badhao (Increase Hindu Population), and Hindu Sambhalo (Hold Hindus in Hinduism)”. The message was simpler: Increase Hindu population by 2021, the next Census, though RSS sources concede that may be difficult.
Headed by Mumbai-based Mukund Rao Panshikar now, the DJSS has 58 RSS pracharaks (the maximum for any Sangh activity) and around 2,000 “whole-timers” on rolls. The “whole-timers” are those who work as pracharaks but take a small honorarium to support their families.
A well-organised cohesive outfit, the DJSS has units up to almost every district level. Each district unit includes the head known as sanyojak (convenor), a pariyojna pramukh (in charge of projects), a prashashanik sampark pramukh (to liaise with the administration), a sanskriti pramukh (to work with sadhus etc), a nidhi pramukh (cashier), and a vidhi pramukh (who runs the legal cell).
After areas with reports of conversions to Islam or Christianity are identified, the DJSS first constitutes a Dharma Raksha Samiti comprising around 100 prominent people of the area, including leaders of different Hindu castes. It is the Dharma Raksha Samiti that facilitates the way to a Ghar Wapsi. “We do Ghar Wapsi where everything is ready,” says an RSS pracharak. “We create the atmosphere where there is a problem.”
A pracharak in eastern Uttar Pradesh says their job is also to ensure “Hindus remain Hindus”, even if they don’t manage to “reconvert”.
The other big date on the DJSS calendar is August 23, the day Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed in 2008, in Orissa. Usually a week of programmes around this date start on Krishna Janmashtami as Laxmanananda was killed that festival day.
In every state the DJSS has two meetings every month to take stock of ongoing work. Last month there was a conclave in Nagpur of over 1,200 people working with the DJSS with Mohan Bhagwat present all three days.
This year, after the December 23-31 programmes, there will be a four-day conclave of all of the Sangh’s state-level pracharaks, including those associated with the DJSS, in Cuttack in February. Following this, the DJSS will hold a day-long chintan baithak of its state-level pracharaks there. In the end, a report on the DJSS activities will be presented at the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha meeting of the RSS in March in Nagpur.
All-India convenor Panshikar admits all programmes barring Aligarh’s are on schedule. “Programmes are planned by state units as per local situation,” he says. “Our Agra (western UP) unit cancelled the Aligarh event. We will compile information on our other programmes in our annual report later.”
The areas to focus on are sometimes identified on the basis of caste names of “reconverts”. For example the Beawar district of Rajasthan where RSS sources claim that around 90,000 Muslims have “returned to Hinduism” in the past 10 years. Says an RSS spokesperson who doesn’t want to be named, “In Beawar, there is a sizeable population of descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan called Mehrat and Kathat. Their rituals are a mix of that of Hindus and Muslims. They were forcibly converted to Islam.”
However, he adds, “There have been no planned conversions here ever. As and when Muslims realise their original roots, they themselves want to get back to Hinduism… Even the Meo Muslims in Alwar were all Meenas. Recently during one of our interactions with the Muslim community in Shastri Nagar in Jaipur, we learnt that there were Pawars who are Muslims.”
A DJSS leader claims the Kshatriyas and Baniyas of western Uttar Pradesh form a majority of those who got converted to Islam because of poverty or lack of respect within their own community. So the RSS is looking at Chauhans and Soms in Meerut, Jats, Tyagi and Gurjars in Muzaffarnagar, and Sisaudiya in Noida and adjoining districts.
In Uttar Pradesh, the spark for the recent controversy, the DJSS has been operating for more than 15 years, with focus mainly in western and eastern UP. RSS sources say the total “reconversions” here number nearly five lakh, mostly of Christians.
The DJSS in the state is divided into Awadh, Kanpur, Kashi, Gorakhpur, Braj and Paschim (west) prants. RSS office-bearer Ram Lakhan heads the Kashi, Gorakhpur, Awadh and Kanpur prants, with Ram Chandra Pandey as assistant. Pandey was called back from South Africa, where he was posted as in-charge of RSS Vishwa Vibhag.
Rajeshwar Singh heads the wings in Braj and Paschim as well as in Uttarakhand. It is the Braj and Paschim wings, including both Agra and Aligarh, that have been targeting Muslims. In the other areas, the focus is on Christians. In 2013, for example, the DJSS claims to have “reconverted” around 150 Muslims and 6,000 Christians in west UP.
There are at least 150 DJSS volunteers at work in each district of UP. A DJSS source says a volunteer is allowed to spend up to Rs 5 lakh each a year, for visiting identified families, remaining in touch with them over phone and helping them “in times of need”.
Asked if they had been set any targets, a senior RSS office-bearer says,
“The target is to reduce the number of converted Muslims and Christians so that no political party can appease them. The larger target is to make the country free of converted Muslims and Christians by December 31, 2021.”
In Gujarat, the VHP and the RSS’s Hindu Jagran Manch, which have become active again since Modi moved on to Delhi as PM, are part of the reconversion exercise. However, there are few willing to talk about it. A BJP leader in Vadodara says they have been told to “lie low” given that Gujarat is Modi’s home state.
In the Nineties, it was the Hindu Jagran Manch that spearheaded mass tribal “reconversions” from Christianity in the Dangs area of the state, leading to riots.
As the RSS and its associated factions scout for potential communities in Vadodara to “reconvert”, their target are the ‘Mohr-e-Islam Rajputs’, more popularly known as Garasiya Muslims, located on the outskirts of the city.
Says Hemant Kishorkar of the Hindu Jagran Manch, “The Mohr-e-Islam Rajputs were Hindus who were converted to Islam but even today they pray to Hindu goddesses, follow Hindu rituals and are treated as outcastes by Muslims.”
VHP leader Pravin Togadia was on a Gujarat tour presiding over Viraat Hindu Sammelans recently, and in a meeting in Vadodara warned about the “diminishing” Hindu population.
On November 9, nearly 335 Christians were “reconverted” to Hinduism in Valsad district by the Dharma Prasar Vibhag of the VHP, which is active in the tribal-dominated belt of the state. “The main fight is against Christian missionaries. As far as Muslims are concerned, our focus is mainly the border areas of Kutch,” says a member.
Since the Raman Singh government came to power in Chhattisgarh in 2003, state DJSS head Radheshyam claims, over 57,000 Christian families have been converted to Hinduism by them alone.
The late BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo led one of the most well-known Ghar Wapsi programmes in the state, as well as the country. After these ran into a controversy, such “reconversions” had almost come to a halt till they saw a resurgence in the summer of this year, particularly in tribal Bastar. One of the first such programmes was led by Bastar BJP MP Dinesh Kashyap. There were clashes when some gram sabhas in Bastar barred non-Hindu missionaries from entering their villages.
The VHP too has been lending a hand. While in September, 240 Christian families were brought to the Hindu fold in Pathalgaon block of Jashpur in Bastar, in October, the VHP “reconverted” over 30 Christian families of Madhota village in the area.
Earlier this month, the DJSS held a Satnam Sandesh Jagran Yatra to woo the Satnami community, a sub-caste of Dalits.
The DJSS in Chhattisgarh operates through a Dharma Sena of male youths and a woman force of Dharma Raksha Vahini. While the Dharma Sena works in the villages persuading Muslims and Christians to “reconvert”, it is the Dharma Raksha Vahini of “Hindu mothers” that is the DJSS’s most interesting addition for Chhattisgarh. The “25,000 members of the Vahini” are meant to counter Christian women who, the DJSS claims, are enticing Hindu men to their fold.
Despite Laxmanananda being one of the faces of the DJSS reconversion campaign, conversion activities in Orissa have slowed down considerably since his killing. The riots triggered by the death in Kandhamal almost put an end to all proselytisation activities of missionaries as well as bodies like the VHP. But in the past three-four years, the Parishad has again become visible, though in other areas. The RSS, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be as active.
On November 23 this year, 349 tribals who had become Christians several years ago in Mayurbhanj district were “reconverted” to Hinduism by the Dharma Prasar Vibhag of the VHP. “The tribals told us they had been misled into Christianity. They were assured of some miracles which never happened,” says Achyutananda Kar, the VHP in-charge of conversion activities.
Early this year, the VHP “reconverted” around 90 Dalit Christian families in Jeypore town of Koraput district at a similar function. Kar claims the Dalits made notarised affidavits before becoming Hindu. Last year, around 80 tribal Christian families had been converted to Hinduism in Sundargarh district.
There have been no claimed “reconversion” of Muslims though in the state.
Kar says the number of VHP men involved in such “reconversions” in Orissa is very small. “There is no whole-timer.”
The focus of the DJSS’s Punjab campaign is different, as here “reconversions” are targeted at getting Christians back into not just Hindu but also the Sikh fold. It claims to have enabled some 8,000 “reconversions” in the past three years alone. The orthodox Sikhs as well as BJP ally Akali Dal are worried as the RSS views Sikhs as part of the larger Hindu culture.
For the first time, the RSS is holding Dharma Jagran Yatras in the border districts of Punjab, to be organised over the next one month, where it will showcase its “returnees” as well as conduct Ghar Wapsi ceremonies. Granthis of local gurdwaras have been contacted to assist in the ceremonies.
Says Dinesh who heads the Ghar Wapas Pariyojana in Punjab, “It is only last year that we took up the Punjab project in earnest.”
Hoshiarpur district has seen the maximum Ghar Wapsis followed by Amritsar and Batala.
In Kerala, where the RSS and the Church have been long locked in a conflict, the VHP has launched a helpline for those who want to get “reconverted” to Hinduism. Coordinator Aneesh Balakrishnan says they have received 100-odd calls, mainly from SC and ST members who had got “converted to Christianity”.
While Balakrishnan admits he is unsure of how many would turn up, Ghar Wapsi programmes are planned for all 14 districts of the state on December 25.
There are problems though. Noting that one of the crucial aspects of the DJSS campaign is persuading Hindus to accept the “reconverted” Muslims and Christians, a pracharak says, “A majority of those converted to Christianity are Dalits and tribals and they face no problem being accepted within their communities on ‘reconversion’. But if a Muslim is ‘reconverted’, it is a tough task to convince Hindus to accept them. They face difficulties in getting their children married.”
Caste remains a reality too, with VHP central secretary Vyankatesh Abdeo saying recently that those seeking to “reconvert” should be given the option of choosing the caste they want.
In fact, despite propagating that Hindavah Sodarah Sarve (all Hindus are real brothers), the RSS leadership itself is dominated by upper-caste Hindus with not many examples of inter-caste marriages in their families.
Says RSS prachar pramukh Manmohan Vaidya, “Many people in the country want to come back to their origins. The Hindu Samaaj must welcome them.”
When Bhagwat sought an anti-conversion Bill on Saturday, he was reiterating what the RSS has been demanding for decades. The first time they raised it was in 1979, in response to a private member’s Bill. Before the present row, the Sangh had demanded such a Bill after Laxmanananda’s murder.
The RSS argument is that the Bill would check “large-scale conversions” that are allegedly currently on from the Hindu side, and hence end need for its own Ghar Wapsi programme.
By openly backing the conversion campaign on Saturday, Bhagwat also underlined what has been clear in the Sangh ranks. That there is no cause to hurry, or to stop. Says a pracharak working with the DJSS, “It is time-taking. ‘Reconversion’ is not possible overnight.”
In fact, sources say, the very day the issue was first raised in Parliament following the Agra and Aligarh row, a call had gone out to various Union ministers, BJP leaders and their colleagues from the Sangh. The RSS clearly told them to be aggressive on the issue — “There is no need to be defensive.”
With inputs from Lalmani Verma, Aditi Raja, Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Debabrata Mohanty, Chander Suta Dogra and Shaju Philip