December 28, 2014

Reconversion: Some Implications of Its Historical Antecedents in Adivasi Central India

Archana Prasad

MOHAN Bhagwat’s statement that India is a Hindu Rashtra and that the Hindus should reclaim their own through a reconversion programme has come at a time when the reconversion debate is stalling parliament. This debate has finally lifted the mask of development which was worn by the Modi government in order to sell the corporate Hindutva dream to the nation. In order to counter this demystification, the BJP has been arguing that an anti-conversion law is needed in order to stop forced change in religion. This argument is not a new one and has been raised every time the reconversion or ghar vapasi programme has been opposed by democratic and secular forces. It also has a history which shows the enactment of an anti-conversion law is a core principle of majoritarian communal politics which prevents the exploited people of caste Hindus from escaping into religions which, at least in theory, do not recognise the caste system. ADIVASIS & THE ORIGINS OF GHAR VAPASI Ghar vapasi, or reconversions have been used by the sangh parivar since the 1930s to penetrate into adivasi regions of central and eastern India. It works on the presumption that dalits and adivasis are basically ‘Hindus’ and they had been converted into Christianity by the missionaries in a forcible way. This ‘force’ was a function of welfare activities of the missionaries who could lure adivasis into their network by providing free and cheap education and medical aid. It was also noted that the missionaries had been able to penetrate into these regions because of their work in times of famines which helped them to set up these services. In order to counter this, Hindu rightwing organisations like the Arya Dharma Sevak Sangh also started their own welfare activities with the support of ruling classes, especially princely states like Jashpur. They put pressure on the Raja of Jashpur to enact the first anti-conversion law in the country, banning missionary activities. By the 1940s, all anti-missionary views sought to emphasize the affinity between adivasis and Hindus and therefore did not object to the reconversion work that the Hindu nationalists continued to do on a large scale. Reports of activities in adivasi areas in the 1940s emphasized how "nationalist schools" were opened by the Arya Dharam Sevak Sangh (an outfit run by the Hindu Mahasabha) to provide alternatives to mission schools. Mass reconversion and purification programmes by the Hindu Mahasabha received the tacit support of both the Congress and other anti-missionary liberal social workers like Thakkar and Elwin. Thus by the end of the 1940s it was seen that anti-missionary activists had started believing that assimilation into Hinduism was one of the only ways of secular adivasi development. They also lobbied for the banning of missionary activities in areas dominated by adivasis especially the areas under the Fifth Schedule at this time. The attack on Christian missionaries received a new impetus with the setting up of an enquiry into the activities of Christian Missions soon after independence. A former judge, N B Niyogi, headed the commission that had only one Christian representative who was a Gandhian by ideology. No other minorities were represented in the commission to which the Christian religious leadership protested. However despite their objections, the recommendations of the committee were by members not acceptable to most of the Christian missionary leadership. Chief amongst these recommendations was the banning of all foreign and mission agencies in scheduled and specified areas. Further the committee also asked the missionaries to withdraw if they proposed to attract adivasis to their faith. They also recommended that the Indian Churches stop their foreign funding so that the anti-national tendencies in their activities would be minimised. On the legislative front they also recommended the medical and professional services, as a direct means of making conversions should be prohibited. As far as orphanages were concerned, they stated that these should be State-run and the same should be done for education. Armed with these recommendations, missionary activities were banned in partially excluded areas of the province and the State took over the welfare activities in these areas. The evidence on which the Commission's recommendations were based revealed that there were varied perceptions of conversions. More often than not, these differences were dependent upon the economic and social status of the respondent. For example the adivasis and poor cultivators like Gonds and Uraons conversions to both Hinduism and Christianity were a means of economic necessity as they were offered basic services that were free of cost. However the majority of the evidence produced in the volume was from the people of the professional middle class who were also the main service providers in the region and found missionary activities as directly threatening their interests. They also had linkages with the landholding class that formed the backbone of both the Congress and the Mahasabha. By accepting their demand for the ban of missionary activity in some areas and their curtailment in others, the Congress became a latent party to the Hindutva agenda in the 1940s and 50s. THE VEHICLES OF RECONVERSIONS The deliberations of the Niyogi Commission showed the alliance between the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and right wing forces in mainstream nationalism in the adivasi regions. The 1970s saw the setting up of several mass social reform fronts like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams and their rapid expansion after emergency and the revival of the Jan Sangh. By the turn of the century there were Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams in 8955 places in 312 districts of the country under the supervision of 1203 full-time workers and the movement received a definite fillip after the BJP came into power in 1998. The tribal affairs ministry and Khadi and Village Industries Commission were used by the government to dole out grants to those NGOs and voluntary sector organisations that are steadily implementing the BJP agenda in these regions. More than 85 percent of the funds of the Schedule Castes and Tribes Commission were given to NGOs associated with the Sangh Parivar in Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Even today, the 13 of the 17 NGOs recognised by the ministry of tribal affairs for running social welfare schemes are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar. These NGOs and ashrams play an important part in socialising adivasis into the Hindutva consciousness and incorporating adivasi rituals into local Hindu traditions. They also raise contingents of youths who spearheaded the ghar vapasi campaign. In this context it is important to unveil the relationship between the expansion of Hindutva forces and the social classes that have formed the foundations of the opening up of the forest economies on which the ‘adivasis’ had become dependent. Aggressive Hindutva (in the form of reconversion campaigns) in the post mandal period and the initiation of policies aiding corporate capital exemplified the BJP rule at the centre. Its policies revealed that most of this opening up had taken place for the benefit of the traders, big companies and foreign money who funded the activities of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Saraswati Shiksha Sansthan (an umbrella organisation of all Parivar educational institutions). It is no coincidence then that the Shishu Mandir Trust is headed by one of the largest Marwari traders of Kolkata and its local branches are patronised by influential landholders and traders. Thus the activities of the Sangh Parivar have ended up strengthening, rather than dismantling the very forces that have been exploiting the adivasis since the advent of the British rulers in these areas. The policies of the NDA government only strengthened and aided this process. Disinvestment of industries like BALCO and privatisation of land, water and forest resources as in the case of the Sheonath river, will only lead to the further deprivation, and unemployment of adivasis. The withdrawal of the State from key sectors has led to the reduction of State investment in infrastructure development. In this context, all attempts at the decentralised management of forests and forest produce collection have only strengthened the traders, industrialists and multinational companies who are appropriating the knowledge, labour and resources of tribal people for their own profits. The current debate on reconversions has to be seen in the context of this contemporary history. The enactment and aggressive implementation of anti-conversion laws in BJP ruled states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have emboldened the Sangh Parivar organisations, especially Bajrang Dal and VHP, to expand their reconversion campaign in non-adivasi regions. Current events show that Christians are once again the targets of these organisations. Today, when corporate capital is intensifying its appropriation from adivasi regions, this campaign is likely to receive its support and represents its interests. The evidence for this will have to be gathered on the ground by democratic forces so that the current face of the reconversion drive can be demystified.