Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“Ghar Wapsi” and the not so veiled threat of the Sangh

“Ghar Wapsi” and the not so veiled threat of the Sangh


Not many people in the world, and specially Christians in India, will recognize Phalgun Amawasya, Kaliyug Varsha 5114 as April 10, 2013. But it is an important date to remember. That was the date that in the well-known Samantwadi, a pretty place near the southern tip of the state of Maharashtra, saw a meeting of what they described as “devout” Hindus.  Samantwadi, a former principality under the Bhonsales, is known for its Brahminic traditions. But what was unusual about this meeting was a resolution passed by about 6,500 persons in the ‘Hindu Dharmajagruti Sabha’ organised by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) to create awareness amongst Hindus “towards increasing attacks on Hindu Dharma, conversions of Hindus; oppression of Hindus to appease minorities demoralizing Hindus; slaughtering of cows revered by Hindus; efforts to eliminate Hindu Dharma through the medium of ‘love jihad’.”

After a series of fiery speeches, the meeting resolved “to establish Hindu Rashtra for elimination of anti-nationals and anti-Hindus; to stop attacks on Hindu Dharma; even if they have to sacrifice everything.”

This could be passed off as a one-off attempt by some lunatic fringe, goaded by its Islamaphobic leaders, to articulate its angst.

But two factors demand that secular India and its government take serious note of such fulminations. One is a series of parallel events involving the top brass of what is called the Sangh Parivar saying the same thing as they boast of their growth in recent years, even under “friendly” Indian National Congress regimes. And these fringe elements are mushrooming by the night.

The second is a statement, that can well be taken as a threat, made by the head of the Sangh Parivar, Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, that conversions will be “reversed”, a challenge he has knowingly thrown to the Christian church in India. The last is a claim by the Sangh that they have indeed made as many as 200,00 Christians, mostly Dalits and Tribals, into Hindus, a process they call “Ghar Wapsi”, a Return Home in the mistaken belief that all Dalits and Tribals are anyway Hindus.

The HJS itself has by its own accounts organized more than 870 ‘Dharmajagruti Sabha’ and “created awareness amongst more than 11,00,000 Hindus towards “Dharma”.

The 7th April 2013 was interesting also for the participation of organisations people may not have heard of before – the Hindu Rashtra Sena, the Sanatan Sanstha, and  ‘Ranaragini’, apparently a gender focused group.  This demands a study of the manner in which the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the parent organisation, now works through perhaps as many as 125 to 150 different organisations working at the grassroots under various disguises targeting groups as different as Dalits and Tribals on the one hand, professions such as engineers and doctors, all the way to the organised and unorganized labour where it has made serious inroads into a sector once dominated wither by the Communist parties or by the Indian National Congress Trade Union Congress.

Even as genuine data on the growth of the RSS remains hidden in the records of the Intelligence Bureau, and now perhaps the National Investigation Agency after the detection of Hindutva terror against Muslims and State players, some figures are now available, though terribly dated, from RSS sources. These record phenomenal growth in the subsidiary Sangh agencies.  The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh had crossed the One crore mark by 2009. According to the last official count by the labour ministry in 2002, the BMS had 62.2 lakh members while the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) had 38 lakh and the Communist Party of India’s AITUC, 33 lakh.

The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, which faces tough competition from other Other Backward Community and peasantry groups in North India, claims One million people. Dinesh Dattatreya Kulkarni, organising secretary of the farmers’ union, told the The Telegraph newspaper of Kolkata: “Our only competitor used to be the Shetkari Sangathan of Sharad Joshi. But he too converted it into a political party, the Swatantra Bharat Paksha. Not being in politics gives a core of integrity to our work because we are not forced to make compromises or deals, or to defend the indefensible.”

The Rashtriya Seva Bharati, an important and silent agency that does grassroots work for the Sangh in towns and villages, now as 1,57,776 members. The students wing active in universities, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad which has now penetrated even the Left wing Jawaharlal Nehru University student politics and which boasts the senior leader Arun Jaitely as its brightest alumni, claims a membership of 19 lakh, or nearly two million, in major universities and colleges. The ABVP has the largest following in BJP-ruled Karnataka and in Andhra Pradesh, a state where the party practically doesn’t exist.

The most alarming is the growth is in the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which works in the tribal areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, including Kandhamal, grows at the rate of a 1,000 units a year and now totals close to 14,500 by its figures disclosed for 2009. Kripa Prasad Singh, joint general secretary of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in his interview with he Telegraph said,  “Congress governments have never harassed us because they appreciate the services we render to the Tribals,” Singh said. “Even the CPM government in Tripura has been friendly.”

In Kerala, under the nose of the Marxists, the Congress and the Christian Church, the RSS Pranthiya Karyakarthru Sibiram has announced it will increase the Sangh’s influence in the rural areas of the State by launching around 10,000 shakhas, one each in specially-identified villages, a doubling of its presence in the middle of the last decade.

It is in this not yet fully decoded matrix that one looks at the carefully orchestrated crescendo of statements from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, and those in charge of the Ghar Wapsi movement, militant groups in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in particular, who have been articulating this direct challenge not just to the Church in India, its evangelical wings in the Catholic and Pentecostal groups specially but to the secular society at large. It is also a challenge to the State because conversions, and the logical conclusion of the progress of evangelisation and propagation of faith, is a guarantee enshrined not just in the Constitution but upheld by the Supreme court and High courts repeatedly even as they warn against forcible or fraudulent conversions. Interestingly enough, the courts are silent on Ghar Wapsi, and at the moment of writing, do not treat them as conversions, much less forcible conversions despite the massive evidence of violence in the Sangh campaigns.

The RSS has long been calling for a national law against conversions. It wants the so called Freedom of Religion Laws of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and several other states, extended to the entire country, putting in place as strict regime that can make it all but impossible for Christian pastors to either preach directly or baptize any convert without the permission, sometimes prior permission, of the civil and police authorities of the state.

“Hinduism doesn’t accept conversions. Hindus try to reverse conversions,” Bhagwat said, inaugurating an Rs 18 crore convention centre of the RSS in Kerala, the first of its kind in that enlightened state. “Conversions are not necessary. If you have the basic human values, what you wear, what you eat and what you pray all these are immaterial,” he said. Calling for a new law to stop religious conversion, he said the Scheduled Tribes, who convert into Christianity, should be debarred from the benefits of reservation.

This year on 6 January, Bhagwat said “Prevalent untouchability in society is breeding conversion and a ‘samras samaj’ (casteless society) is possible only by stamping out the menace. Discriminations based on caste and religion do not end even after converting to Christianity or Islam hence conversion is no solution to end discriminations.” To promote unity in the society, he suggested, all communities shall together celebrate birth/death anniversaries of great saints of all religions. Bhagwat said he would ask RSS regional heads to organise an ‘All Religion Unity Meeting’ at block level. The RSS has long held it against the Christian community that those who convert cut themselves off from local saints and holy places, or events, there by also cutting themselves from the local culture and the community at large.

Earlier, in 2011 February 11, Bhagwat had vociferously asserted that there is a need to frame a new law to stop religious conversion.”To stop the religious conversion in the country, to give employment to the poor people from the scheduled tribes, to give them education, to give them jobs, we need to frame a new law, guaranteeing that whoever converts from their religions should not get the benefit of reservation,” he said at Madhya Pradesh’s Mandala District where the Sangh had organised a Kumbh religious “mela” on the river Narmada. “If some body becomes a Christian from the scheduled caste, then why should they be given the benefits of the reservation?” he added.

The church has so far not woken up to this argument, and priests and pastors at the grassroots level have not been educated to challenge the thesis.

They are also ignorant, if not entirely impotent, in how to respond the Ghar Wapsi movement.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an adjunct of the Sangh, claims over 200,000 Christians had been converted to Hinduism by 2011, for which they released data earlier this year. The Ghar Wapsi has been through Andhra and the Tribals states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, even Maharashtra.

In Balasore in Orissa in one such mass conversion rally, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) said its focus was on preventing religious conversion and asked its members to protest wherever there is an attack on any Hindu. With its attention focused on checking conversion, VHP has succeeded in preventing about 50 lakh Hindus from switching over to other faiths in last 10 years,” VHP’s international general secretary Praveen Togadia claimed.

What happens at these rallies? Here is an account from one account of a function held at Mothi village in Algona district of Andhra Pradesh the VHP Dharma Prasad Samiti “around 500 children were presented the locket of Hanumanji and all those who returned home were gifted new clothes.”

I have had occasion to document Ghar Wapsi events in various villages of Orissa, and not just in Kandhamal, where the process has involved shaving off the head of men and women, their purification through a mixture of cow dung and cow urine, the chanting of mantras around the fire, and wherever possible, the burning of “alien” books such as the Bible. Colleagues who have documented the Ghar Wapsi organised by former BJP minister and strongman Dilip Singh Judeo speak of how his armed cadres – armed with bow and arrow as much as with modern guns – would surround the place and keep watch while he “initiated” the Christian into the Hindu fold.

My own observations after field studies are of Ghar Wapsi as a movement that uses armed force and violence, certainly the threat of violence, towards a conversion of neo-Christians to Hinduism.

It cannot be called a home coming because the Tribals do not accept Hinduism ad a default language, and over the past years, there has been a vigorous movement among those of them who are not Christians to assert their roots in the Sarna and other indigenous religions. The 2011 census was slightly better than the 2001 census in allowing some space for indigenous religions to have their voice heard as opposed the past when they were all routinely lumped under the Hindu label. This lacuna still remains in law and the BJP ruled states list all so called “Indic” religions as Hindus.  The matter needs to be taken to one of the superior courts in the interests of constitutional provisions for freedom of faith and belief guarantees every Indian citizen.

The Ghar Wapsi activities also encourage lumpen elements and smaller organised village level groups to gather strength and demand homogenization in the villages. This is not simple matter and has in it seeds of grist future violence in rural groups deeply divided on the basis of a militant new version of Hinduism.

That is a threat to peace. The State must wake up to it.

[First published in Indian Currents,  14 April 2013]