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Sunday, September 27, 2020

No fixed identity

Conversions threaten a political order that believes in singularity.

Written by Madhavi Menon | Updated: December 26, 2014 8:37:56 am
Our identities are not fixed and never can be. If they were, that would make us very boring people indeed. Our identities are not fixed and never can be. If they were, that would make us very boring people indeed.

Is this law that the BJP wants to pass against conversion or “forcible conversion”? It would like us to believe there is a difference between these two concepts. And while threatening someone with physical harm is certainly not to be condoned, such a threat has historically not been the primary reason for conversion in India. The biggest reason for which Hindus have converted to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism has been Hinduism itself, with its violent and asphyxiating emphasis on the purity of caste.

But let us for a moment leave aside the particularities of any one religion and focus instead on the idea of conversion itself. Deriving, as it does, from the Latin convertere, to turn around, conversion implies, as its basic, fundamental principle, the idea that identity is not fixed. The very concept of conversion suggests that one can change, that a person, idea or thing can be moved from one position to another. Thus, religious conversions are premised on the fact that one can be a Hindu today and a Muslim tomorrow. But, and here’s the rub, it also means that one can stop being a Muslim tomorrow and become a Buddhist or Hindu the day after, and a Muslim again the day after that. Conversion as an activity implies fluidity rather than fixity.

Hindu fundamentalists want to exploit this fluidity in order to bring converted Hindus “back” into the fold of Hinduism. After all, conversion should not work only in one direction, it must also be allowed to turn around. So far so good. But where things become sticky is when this fluidity is recognised only till the point at which people can be made Hindus (again). After that, all conversion has to stop.

The irony of this position seems completely lost on the RSS and its affiliates. If I convert once, then I can convert again. And again. One cannot ban conversion but condone reconversion, and then expect conversions to stop. Those who want to ban conversions want to do so because it takes one away from “the truth”. But the only way to return to such truth is by converting (again). So the law against conversion cannot be against conversion per se. It can only be against the first instance of conversion — deemed untrue or violent — not the second or third or fourth. Otherwise, the law would have to act against the re-conversions being carried out by Hindu fundamentalists, too.

Indeed, the logic of “bringing back” implies that there is a fixed point of authenticity that attaches to every person at her or his truth. If we believe that authenticity derives from one’s birth — that is, if one is “born a Hindu” — then a couple of key points emerge quite clearly. First, that we have no control over the course of our lives. This would be a legalised version of the stranglehold of caste — your religion is something into which you are born and that you cannot change. The question of choice over one’s profession, and religion, simply does not arise in such a worldview. Second, it implies that seniority is the mode by which to adjudicate between the authentic and inauthentic. If Hinduism came first to an individual, then that is the person’s truth. One cannot examine or reorder one’s truth. By this logic, we cannot change anything about ourselves from the time of our birth.

But conversion means change. I should be able to change my name, my religion, my gender, my sexuality, my political affiliation, my clothes and my point of view. And I should be able to change all these multiple times. Put in this manner, it becomes easy to see why conversion is synonymous with what we call democracy. But this cornerstone of democracy is also what most threatens religious fundamentalists.

Conversion is potentially neverending, which is what makes it threatening to any political order that believes in singularity. And because it is neverending, it makes it impossible for us to convert and then pretend that there is an endpoint to conversion. Our identities are not fixed and never can be. If they were, that would make us very boring people indeed.

This is why an “anti-conversion” law is an exercise in the logic of fascism. It does not believe in any change that questions the status quo. And it believes in change only when change cleaves to a particular agenda. Any other conversion is deemed to be “violent”. But the violence is in the proposed anti-conversion law itself and it is the violence of pretending that conversions can, should or will stop.

The writer is professor of English at Ashoka University

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