‘GHAR’ is one of the most loved and evocative words in Hindustani. It conjures up a place that is always welcoming, always accepting, not only to those who belong to it but to their friends and comrades. The doors of a home are always open, the space in a home is also elastic, capable of enveloping as many as want to enter the haven that it offers. ‘Ghar wapsi’ therefore signifies a happy return home. From a voyage, from a long absence, from a holiday. It is a happy home-coming not only for a family favourite but even for a prodigal son (or daughter). In short, it is a phrase that can only be understood as expressing acceptance and open and free access – all the attributes of a home, a place where even strangers are made to feel welcome and ‘at home’.
It is not surprising that, in its inimitable fashion, the Sangh Parivar is using this attractive phrase, loaded with emotional and nostalgic memories and associations for most Indians, to promote its extremely dangerous and divisive campaign of conversion and re-conversion to Hinduism.
The vast majority of Indians, more than 82 per cent, declare themselves to be Hindus. The balance, 18 per cent, are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, neo-Buddhists and atheists (probably in that order). There is absolutely no demographic challenge that Hinduism faces in India, no probability of Hindus ever being reduced to a minority, but, despite these self-evident facts, the Sangh Parivar creates and then feeds off the bogey of Hindus being inundated by followers of other religions, of becoming a ‘minority’ in their own home.
In the early twentieth century, as the freedom movement gained in strength and effectiveness, demographic realities became more and more important to politicians and different political groupings. The countdown to Independence made numbers increasingly important. For those opposed to class politics, the numbers that different communities, linguistic groups, castes and religious groups represented dominated both discourse and intervention. This can be seen in the statements and, often incorrect and outrageous, assertions of Jinnah; in the persuasive methods employed to encourage and influence many dalit communities with a syncretic identity, neither Hindu nor Muslim but a synthesis of the Sufi and Bhakti teachings of both combined with a strong belief in their own ‘heroes’ and progenitors; in the Shuddhi movement launched vigorously by the Arya Samaj which was soon joined by the Hindu Mahasabha in its efforts to ‘bring back’ mostly Muslim and some Christian converts back to the Hindu fold that they had abandoned.
There has never been any doubt about the fact that most Muslims and Christians in the country are the descendants of those who converted to these faiths from the Hindu fold. This was a process that occurred over several centuries. Conversions were made for different reasons in different parts of the country. They cannot, however, be attributed solely to brutal coercion exercised by Muslim or Christian rulers because, had this been the norm, the numbers would have been very different. It seems logical, therefore, to state that some conversions took place due to conversion or allurements or the desire on the part of those converting to establish close ties with their rulers. The mass of converts, however, were members of the untouchable and backward communities who accepted Islam and Christianity in an effort to escape the shackles and bondage of caste oppression from which they could find no other escape. This has been accepted by both Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi who were equally critical of missionary activities and acts of conversion. They were also, however, deeply troubled by the atrocities committed by members of the dominant castes and, although they upheld the caste system itself as being intrinsic to Hindu religion, they did critique its more abhorrent aspects and also cited the abandonment of the Hindu fold by large masses of the oppressed castes as an important and pressing reason for the reform of the varnashram dharma system.
The attempts at increasing the numbers of Hindus before Independence met with limited success. While there are no reliable statistics available, Census figures do not reveal that the number of those accepting ‘shuddhi’ and re-converting to Hinduism was never very large. In the case of the Scheduled Castes (earlier known as untouchables), however there is evidence that points to the fact that the fact that the policy of reservation in jobs and education was restricted to Scheduled Caste Hindus only (it was later extended to SC Sikhs in Punjab and neo-Buddhists in Maharashtra) did persuade many belonging to this social category to declare themselves to be ‘Hindus’ in Census responses and it may have also acted as a brake on further conversions away from the Hindu fold.
Questions are therefore raised as to why the campaign for conversion and re-conversion to Hinduism is of such great importance to the Sangh Parivar. There no longer exists any great impetus for conversion away from Hinduism. The country is no longer under ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ rule; those belonging to the oppressed castes face a very strong disincentive to exodus from the Hindu fold; there is no possibility of migration of people of different faiths into the country and the Hindu majority is unassailable.
SENSE OF SUSPICION
The only logical answer to this seems to be the fact that this campaign is an extremely effective tool to further a sense of suspicion and hatred against those belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities by transforming them into, first, aliens and then, enemies.
The seemingly innocuous use made of the words ‘ghar wapsi’ is crucial to this. If the Muslims and Christians are being asked to return to their homes by converting or re-converting to Hinduism, the inference is that they have left or abandoned their homes for an alien place. What has occurred is not just a change of religion but the acceptance of an alien faith and an alien home. What has occurred, therefore, is not just a transfer of religious allegiance, but of national allegiance. The home is the nation and the home is a Hindu home. This is the real and insidious nature of the ‘ghar wapsi’ campaign. Its concern is not to actually convert or re-convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism but to emphasize the fact of their ‘otherness’, their ‘alien-ness’, the fact of their belonging to a different home.
The very shoddy and amateurishness of the few examples of ‘ghar wapsi’ that have been organised by the Sangh Parivar after the BJP government was formed at the centre, illustrate the truth of this. In Madhya Pradesh, perhaps a dozen Scheduled Caste Christians have been forcibly re-converted to Hinduism and, in some cases, even this has been a very temporary phase. In Agra, Uttar Pradesh, about 70 poor Bengali Muslims were ‘converted’ to Hinduism after being promised ration cards and housing. They did not remain Hindus for long and have all publicly announced their return to Islam. In Kerala, in recent weeks, there have been reports of conversions and re-conversions of Christians to Hinduism. In this last instance what is remarkable is that the Congress-led government has taken absolutely no action against the brazen and illegal activities of the Sangh Parivar that are vitiating the communal atmosphere in the state.
The panic these events have created in the minds of Muslims and Christians is enormous. Their sense of insecurity and alienation have increased manifold and their susceptibility to the propaganda and fear-psychosis created by their own communal leaders and organisations has also increased proportionately. This, of course, creates its own repercussions within the majority community.
In a situation in which the incessant hate-campaign against the minorities has already created fissures and divisions, the ‘ghar wapsi’ (home-coming campaign) assumes the identity of a campaign that is not focussed on conversion or re-conversion but actually transforming traitors who have abandoned their ‘real’ home into true patriots.
The use of the word ‘home’ in the invitation being extended by the Sangh Parivar also needs examination. What is the nature of this ‘home’ which Muslims and Christians are being invited to come back to? Spokespersons of the Sangh Parivar like Yogi Adityanath have responded unequivocally to this question. They have said that those who re-convert to Hinduism will have to revert to the castes of their ancestors. In other words, they will have to return to the ‘home’ that their ancestors were desperate to escape.
And not only their ancestors. The plight that generations of oppressed people have suffered at the hands of the caste system and its iniquities and inhumanities can best be understood by turning to the most famous conversion from Hinduism in recent times: the conversion of Babasaheb Ambedkar to Buddhism.
Dr Ambedkar had decided as far back as 1935 that, while he could not prevent the fact of his birth as a Hindu, he would not die as a Hindu. He did not actually convert till nearly two decades later. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, being a supremely logical person, he felt that the threat of his conversion would force upper-caste Hindus to actually give up the supremely illogical and supremely unconscionable caste system. Secondly, he wanted to ensure that when he did renounce Hinduism, he did not do so alone. The speech he gave in 1935 explaining and justifying his decision to convert is revelatory and some excerpts follow:
“Conversion is not a game of children. It is not a subject of entertainment. It deals with how to make man's life successful. Just as a boatman has to make all necessary preparations before he starts for voyage, so also we have to make preparations. Unless I get an idea as to how many persons are willing to leave the Hindu fold, I cannot start preparations for conversion…
There are two aspects of conversion; social as well as religious; material as well as spiritual. Whatever may be the aspect, or line of thinking, it is necessary to understand the beginning, the nature of untouchability and how it is practiced. Without this understanding, you will not be able to realize the real meaning underlying my declaration of conversion…
This is not a feud between rival men. The problem of untouchability is a matter of class struggle. It is the struggle between caste Hindus and the Untouchables. That is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is a matter of injustice being done by one class against another. This "class struggle" has a relation with the social status. This struggle indicates, how one class should keep its relation with another class. This struggle starts as soon as you start claiming equal treatment with others...
The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behaving on par with them insults them. The untouchability is not a short or temporary feature; it is a permanent one .To put it straight, it can be said that the struggle between the Hindus and the Untouchables is a permanent phenomena. It is eternal, because the religion which has placed you at the lowest level of the society is itself eternal, according to the belief of the Hindu caste people. No change, according to time and circumstances is possible. You are at the lowest rung of the ladder today. You shall remain lowest forever. This means the struggle between Hindus and Untouchables shall continue forever. How will you survive through this struggle is the main question. ..Those who desire to live in obedience to the dictates of the Hindus, those who wish to remain their slaves, they do not need to think over this problem. But those who wish to live a life of self-respect, and equality, will have to think over this. How should we survive through this struggle?...
…From the above discussion, two facts are very clear. Firstly, you cannot face tyranny without strength. And secondly, you do not possess enough strength to face the tyranny. With these two conclusions, a third one automatically follows. That is, the strength required to face this tyranny needs to be secured from outside. How you are to gain this strength is really an important question? And you will have to think over this with an unbiased mind...
From this, you will realize one thing, that unless you establish close relations with some other society, unless you join some other religion, you cannot get the strength from outside. It clearly means, you must leave your present religion and assimilate yourselves with some other society. Without that, you cannot gain the strength of that society. So long as you do not have strength, you and your future generations will have to lead your lives in the same pitiable condition.
Uptil now, we have discussed why conversion is necessary for material gains. Now, I propose to put forth my thoughts as to why conversion is as much necessary for spiritual wellbeing… There is no place for an individual in Hindu society. The Hindu religion is constituted on a class-concept. Hindu religion does not teach how an individual should behave with another individual. A religion, which does not recognize the individual, is not personally acceptable to me.”
It was necessary to quote from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s speech at some length because it exposes the Achilles Heel of the Hindutva project, it reveals the nature of the Hindu ‘home’. It is the home of our nightmares not our dreams, a home in which members of its own family are treated as sub-human. A home is a place where the family lives together and eats together but this home is one in which living quarters are segregated and unequal and where the leftovers of some are the feasts of the others.
The reason that the Sangh Parivar gives for its use of the term ‘ghar wapsi’ is that it differentiates between Hinduism and Islam and Christianity. It states that whereas Islam and Christianity justify and glorify proselytisation and use all violent and non-violent coercion to promote it, Hinduism is a different kind of religion in which proselytisation is not possible. In order, therefore, to justify their campaign of conversion and re-conversion they have to refer to it as ‘ghar wapsi’. By identifying their ghar with their religion and their nation, however, and by rejecting the right to equal citizenship of those who have converted to Islam and Christianity, they are actually attempting to convert Hinduism itself into mirroring their own stereotyped and distorted view of what Islam and Christianity represent.