Monday, December 29, 2014

When I went looking for homecoming Christians in Gujarat

“The world knows this is my maal,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, last Saturday in Kolkata. By maal, which means "goods" in Hindi, Bhagwat was referring to Muslims and Christians in India. “If I take back my maal, what’s the big deal?”

The first time the Sangh had acted on its idea of wresting back “stolen goods” was in the early 1990s in a corner of Chhattisgarh. By washing the feet of Christian tribals in ceremonies called ghar wapsi or homecoming, Hindutva activists claimed to have purged them of Christianity and brought them back into the Hindu fold.

An obscure idea, confined to tribal areas, ghar wapasi was pitchforked into the centre of the national debate last month when Hindutva groups held a ceremony in Agra in which they claimed to have converted 60 Muslim families to Hinduism. The Muslims scrap-pickers who lived in a slum told reporters that they had been promised ration cards and basic amenities in return for participating in the havan.

The Opposition stalled Parliament, seeking to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party government on the issue. But the BJP cleverly turned the tables, using the Agra event to make a case for a national anti-conversion law. “The BJP has always been opposed to forcible conversion,” BJP President Amit Shah reportedly said. “The so-called secular parties must support the bill against forced conversion if they are sincere in their clamour against it.''

Bhagwat added his voice to the demand for an anti-conversion law but was careful to exclude ghar wapasi from its ambit – for a reason. While he was speaking in Kolkata, Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists in Valsad district in south Gujarat were announcing triumphantly that they had brought back 400-500 tribals from Christianity to Hinduism.

Hindutva organisations might wish to draw a distinction between those leaving Hinduism and those joining it, but the state anti-conversion laws view all religious conversion ceremonies as the same. In Gujarat, a law passed in 2003 and brought into force in 2008 makes it mandatory for those holding such ceremonies and those participating in them to seek  permission from the head of the district administration.

Had the organisers of the ghar wapasi in Valsad sought permission for the conversion event? “No permission was taken,” said Vikrant Pandey, the district collector of Valsad. In that case, had action been initiated against the Hindutva activists for violating the law? “We are carrying out an investigation to find out whether or not it was a religion conversion ceremony,” he said.

Video footage taken by local journalists in Arnai village shows a Hindu priest chanting mantras under the banner saying "Hindu Sanskriti Dikshaa Karyakaram"  (programme to bestow Hindi culture). Three young couples are sitting around a yagya fire, a group of about a hundred others watching them. Some men are drawing water from a pond to bathe. But an official claimed neither the footage nor the testimonies of Hindutva activists constituted evidence that religious conversions had taken place. “We need to trace the people who participated in the ceremony and verify if they were Christians to start with,” the official said.

But the administration could have easily done that at the event itself. Video footage shows that local policemen were present at the event and were fully aware of the nature of the proceedings.

In search of “homecoming” Christians

Four days after the VHP event, the temple at Arnai village looks desolate. Steps from a mid-sized, modern-looking Hanuman temple led down to a smaller, older Shiva shrine. Further down was a pond fed by a hot water spring. A lone man was drawing water for a bath. On the side of the pond, under a tree, was a cluster of stones adorned with vermillion. “These are our Adivasi gods,” said Bhagirath Bhai Gavit, a middle-aged man who appeared on hearing about my arrival and who introduced himself as the president of the temple trust. He said that the Hanuman temple was built a few decades ago – it is common in tribal areas for Adivasi shrines to be overlaid with signs of contemporary Hinduism.

According to Bhagirath, the VHP chose the temple for the ghar wapasi programme because of the purifying qualities of the hot water spring. “It is very holy," he said. "When Ram ji was on vanvas, Sita Ma wanted to have a bath. So he fired an arrow and hot water sprung up.”

When I asked him to introduce me to those who had changed their religion, he said they did not belong to Arnai village. “They had come from other villages,” he said. “Shankar Bhai would know better.”

The temple and pond in Arnai village.

Shankar Bhai Mahakal was the area’s most well known VHP karyakarta. A Kukna tribal, he lived in Khutli village. He said he joined the organisation in 1994. “I was about 20 years old,” he recalled. “A VHP yatra passed through my village.” Fresh from working as a grassroot mobiliser for the international non-profit Oxfam, he was drawn to the VHP’s idea of working for the cause of Hinduism.

“The main problem is people here do not know about Hindu religion,” he said.  “They are poor and illiterate.” By promising to cure them of their illnesses, he claimed, Christian preachers won them over in large numbers. “But those who do not feel better, unka maan toota jaata hai (they lose faith). Since we have friends in all the villages, we are able to identify those who had tried out Christianity but left it. We keep lists of names ready and whenever a ghar wapasi programme is organised, we get such people to come for it.”

Those attending Saturday's event were not people changing their religion overnight, but those who had stopped practising Christianity long ago, he said. “The ceremony was just a formality. People were given a Hanuman locket to wear around their necks.”

Could he give me a list of those who had attended the ceremony?

"I cannot give you the list without permission from Delhi,” he said.  "We have been told not to give out lists because the intelligence officials might come around snooping..." The VHP did not want to take any chances with the law.

Could he at least tell me the names of the villages from where people had come for the event?

“Sure, write down the names…Vereebhavada, Mehda, Chandvengan, Dhamni, Dhakawad, Pendha…”

The church in the village of Chanvengan. 

By the end of the day, I had visited half a dozen villages but in each of them I had drawn a blank. The villagers did not have any leads to offer. Not a single convert was to be found.

At Chandvengan village, as I stopped outside a church to take a picture, a group of men came towards me, agitated, asking me what I was upto. “Is there a problem here? Are you facing any trouble?” I asked them. “Yes, the newspapers have reported that people in our village have left Christainity and become Hindus. But that’s simply not true…”

In Dhamni, I sat down at a tea stall. Naresh, a young man, was serving tea and bhajjiyas.

“Are they any Christians in the village?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.

“What is the religion of people here?”

“Lots of religions. Moksh Marg, Swaminarayan, Sanatan Dharma…”

“What is your religion?”


“Do you know anyone who had gone to Arnai on Saturday?”

He smiled. He had gone himself, he said, to partake in the feast.

"They were serving baigan ka sabzi, dal and rice."

That’s when I noticed the bright metal trinket around his neck. It was a Hanuman locket.

Hanuman lockets were distributed at the ghar wapasi in Arnai village.

It is possible that of the large crowds gathered at Arnai last Saturday, many had turned up simply for the food, and others were mere spectators. But the interviews done by reporters present at the event suggest that at least some were conscious of changing their religion. The act of changing religion, however, is hardly a dramatic one in a place where the sands of faith are constantly shifting.

Naresh, the young man in Dhamni, identified different Hindu sects as different religions. At the Arnai temple, Bhagirath and his fellow trustees spoke about the bewildering array of evangelists from different religious organisations that travel through the area. “Depending on what appeals to you, you take your pick,” Bhagirath said. “I joined Hari Om in 2004. He joined Swaminarayan four years ago. As for him, he is with the Moksh Marg.”

"We, adivasis, were one people,” said Ganesh Bhai, the Swaminarayan follower, “but we have now been divided into different samprudaya (sects)."

In this eclectic landscape, Christians could have fitted in as just another group, but for the break with adivasi tradition that accompanied the adoption of Christian belief. Every year, when the village gathered at the adivasi shrine to celebrate the festival of Vagh Baras, the only people missing were the Christians. “Forget coming for the festival,” said Bhagirath, “they do not even contribute the 50 rupees donation.”

“How can we do murti puja?” said Prakash, a young man, who I met outside the village church. Preparations were on for natal, as Christmas is known here. The church’s interiors had been given a fresh coat of paint. Women were plastering the courtyard with cow dung paste. Prakash’s father, Silya Bhai, spoke about the time when he adopted Christianity. “It was 1993,” he said. “I had lost both my sons. I was very disturbed. A friend in another village told me about the Church. I started praying and found peace. The same year, Prakash was born.” Others in the group spoke about adopting Christianity to feel better, get rid of pain, to get healed of ailments. How many people attended the church, I asked. “The number keeps changing,” said Silya Bhai. “People leave if they do not feel better. Others join. It all depends…”

The VHP organised an event in Piprol village on Christmas. 

In a region where people pick and abandon religious beliefs at will, Hindutva organisations believe they need to compete for attention – even on Christmas day. In the village of Piprol, on Christmas morning, the church was nearly empty, as village folk trekked up a hill where the VHP had organised a conference of village Bhagats or adivasi faith healers, while serving lunch on the side. Not far from there, in the village of Barumal, a 11 day long Bhagwat Katha was underway at a large temple complex set up by the Swami Akhanadand Trust. “It is no concidence,” said a local journalist who had accompanied me, “that such activities take place around Christmas time.”

“If you had come in the morning, you would have heard adivasi girls chant Sanskrit sholakas,” said the head of the temple trust, Shiv Dutt Sharma, better known as Shivji Maharaj, who lost no time in underlining his political clout – “Modi sahab used to come here every year.” Set up in the late nineties, the organisation’s motto, he said, was “Sanskriti, Shikshaa, Swasthaa” (culture, education, health). “1000 adivasi girls live and study here. We have an ambulance that goes to the villages everyday. We will soon start sending trucks loaded with chana dal and other food items to sell to the villagers at discounted rates.”

A religious discourse underway at the temple complex in Barumal.

Not only did the trust work with the aim of preventing more conversions to Christinaity, said Shivji Maharaj, it even organised ghar wapasi ceremonies to “bring back people who had been misled.” The last ceremony had been held in November and about 350 people had participated, he said. “We do this work quietly. We don’t invite the media.”

“The RSS does not trust the media,” said the journalist. “It feels media coverage has adverse effects.”

So why was the Saturday event opened up to the media? Because some people believe the time is ripe for more publicity, he said. “The karyakartas get energised…They feel, arre yaar, the workers in Valsad are doing this without fear, let us also do something. Those who are stuck at 90%, they gain 10% energy.”

But weren't the organisers of the event worried about the law?

“The law cannot do anything,” he said. “No one here changes religion in their records and certificates. If I start attending church, the police cannot book me for changing my religion. When there is no documentary evidence to prove that people became Christians, then how can anyone prove that they converted from Christianity to Hinduism?”

“This is a dharmyudh (religious war),” said Shivji Maharaj. “It cannot be fought with the law.”

If the state anti-conversion law was so ineffective, why did the RSS want to have one at the national level, I asked.

“To create fear,” the journalist said. “The police in Gujarat was not able to implement the law (against Christian missionaries) because the government at the centre could used the intelligence bureau to trouble the state police. But that’s changed now.”

“In fact, there would have been more ghar wapasi programs,” he continued, “had it not been for the fact that the RSS does not want to embarrass Modi. After all, Obama is coming in January.”

Click here for source