Conversions: Testing Times For Modi
Normal proceedings in the two Houses of Parliament were disrupted by opposition members rushing to the Well of the House and shouting and thus stalling normal conduct of business over the conversion, out of the blue, in Agra
The conversion, re-conversion or no—conversion in Agra- of 57 families, comprising 300 Bengali Muslims in a ceremony called Ghar wapsi by groups associated with RSS and VHP, set ablaze the country’s politics, united the opposition parties who stalled proceedings in Rajya Sabha and put Narendra Modi on his back foot.
Suddenly the country discovered that Modi has quite a few rotten eggs in his BJP basket. And they have started stinking, seemingly to the discomfiture of Modi. The series of embarrassments started with BJP MP from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj saying he believed Nathuram Godse was also a nationalist and Mahatma Gandhiji also did a lot for the nation.
He went on to claim that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Godse was a patriot. “I believe Nathuram Godse was also a nationalist and Mahatma Gandhiji also did a lot for the nation. Godse was an aggrieved person. He may have done something by mistake but was not an anti- national. He was a patriot.”
An embarrassed BJP—more so because Modi has been mentioning Gandhi in almost all his speeches to the point of idolising him—forced Maharaj to retract his statement. Maharaj later said, “I do not consider him a rashtra bhakta (patriot). I might have said some-thing by mistake.”
Then Yogi Adityanath, MP from Gorakhpur surfaced to do his share to embarrass his government and the Party. He claims to have planned a series of ghar wapsi programmes including conversion of 250,00 at Aligarh. The authorities have banned it. (Now with a strong warning from Modi, the programme has been postponed.)
Meanwhile, normal proceedings in the two Houses of Parliament were disrupted by opposition members rushing to the Well of the House and shouting and thus stalling normal conduct of business over the conversion, out of the blue, in Agra.
The reports about it have been confusing and made most wonder what the real motive of its sponsors was. One clip on TV showed some Muslims sitting before some idols and fire in an open vessel. A priest was also in the frame. A day later another Channel showed some maulvis and their followers with a few Bengali Muslims who had allegedly been converted a day earlier and declared Hindus. The Maulvis denied that they had become Hindius. The few Bengali Muslims then refuted too that they had become Hind us.
The 57 Muslim families, who were “converted” to Hinduism said only a day after that they were misled into believing that the programme was for registering them as BPL families, and not for religious conversion. While the families admitted that they had told “pujaris” at the conversion programme that they were “changing their religion” of their own volition, they said they did so out of fear of violence. Representatives of the Bajrang Dal however said the conversion programme had happened “out in the open”, and the families had changed tack under duress. Ismail Khan, the ‘pradhan’ of the 57 families, comprising more than 200 people, said he was first approached by a man 15 days ago who said he would get us a BPL card. Khan said the man he identified as Kishan Lal said once the families had BPL cards, they would be eligible for a host of sops, including subsidised schooling and medical arrangements. “He said on the day our names were registered, big people would come to our basti, and even the media. I saw no danger in this, and agreed immediately,” Khan said.
Ajju Chauhan of the Bajrang Dal refuted, “It was not a conversion but a ghar wapsi, because the previous generations of these families had been converted from Hinduism to Islam. It was done with their consent, and not secretively, but for everyone to see.” He asserted that the families have changed their stand due to pressure from vested interests.
Now both the Maulvis and Nand Kishor Balmiki and his associates have disappeared. Caught in the crossfire of Hindu and Muslim groups, the bedraggled bunch say they have now no hope of coming out of their penury, hated as they are by both communities.
But while the families lamented their fate, the Agra episode gave the opposition the much-needed handle to attack the NDA Government. Parliament was stalled. The opposition demanded that Modi must denounce the conversions in strongest terms and make a statement in Parliament. As all prime ministers have done before, Modi kept silent but let it be known that he disapproved of such conversions and explosive statements made by his MPs.
Notwithstanding this indirect clarification by Modi on his stand on the conversion issue, several serious questions have risen from the conversion in Agra and the series of them that have been planned by BJP MP Yogi Adityanath and others belonging to Bajrang Dal and VHP.
The manner of conversion, en masse and in full media glare, and then leaving the ‘converted’ to be converted back is mystifying. What is the purpose of such efforts, after much show and media publicity, neither the number of Hindus increased nor who had been converting Hindus could be avenged. Only result was shock and suspicion of BJP and of Narendra Modi’s connivance. Or is there a Game Plan the aim of which is not clear so far.
The organisers know very well that it is not possible now to convert openly and that too in large numbers. In Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh—which banned conversions—the process of conversion is so regulated and policed that it is almost impossible to carry out conversions.
Arunachal Pradesh also has an anti-conversion law in its books, but since the rules for the act haven’t been framed, it remains ineffective. The Rajasthan Assembly has already passed an anti-conversion bill that awaits the President’s assent to be made into law. Interestingly, the laws in Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh were promulgated by Congress government which show the similarities in the thinking of the two national parties in India about this matter.
All these state laws are remarkably similar in scope. None of the laws directly ban conversion. Instead they ban conversions by means of “force, allurement, inducement or fraud”– but of course they leave these terms quite undefined, which gives the administration and its agents almost draconian powers.
So Uttar Pradesh is the only major State which can be a playground for the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the like- minded. And this is where things have been happening. Why the Akhilesh Government does not pass an anti-conversion law? In fact after initial strong reaction, Mulayam Singh tried to play down the Agra episode. He said something to the effect that it was not of much significance.
Another thought of importance and should be pondered over is whether the furore over Love Jihad that started in UP was the first part of the Game Plan. Instances were publicised, press conferences held and actions threatened against Muslim young men, alleged to have posed as Hindus, convinced Hindu girls of their love and then married them. After which they forced conversion. Several instances were cited which agitated and appalled people. Yet nothing came out. No one faced any legal action.
The conversion programme has been started soon after. Terribly uncanny. In a recent article on the First Post website in Orissa, titled “Is religious conversion really a fundamental right or can we ban it? “, PhD student Jaideep Prabhu pitched for a “complete ban on proselytism and religious conversion”. “Religious liberty,” he contended, renders “Dharmic systems” unable to “compete as Abrahamic faiths do”. Further, Western-style secularism in which there is a “preference shown towards the competition of ideas is nothing short of a cultural invasion”.
Prabhu’s wish was granted three decades ago by the Supreme Court of India, which held that religious conversion was not a fundamental right (Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh. The fact is that conversion is nothing new in India. During the extreme repression of low caste Hindus by the high caste Hindus, a huge numbers were converted to Islam. Such conversions, at least in large numbers almost stopped after Independence. But missionaries continued by working and helping tribal and others and convincing them that they will be better off if they converted.
The Supreme Court, while upholding life imprisonment for Dara Singh and Mahendra Hembram, main accused in the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in Orissa’s Koenjhar district in January 1999, also came down heavily on Christian missionaries for indulging in forceful conversions. But so far generally they were Hindus, mostly poor and of low caste who were converted. This is possibly the first time that attempts are being made at such a large scale to convert to Hinduism members of other communities.
The question thus as noted earlier is what is the purpose of all these planned conversions, knowing fully well that actually none would be converted. Is the purpose of such futile exercises political or religious?
Secondly, the timing—why now, when the Modi’s measures for development and change are beginning to show some results, when he has been able to make western powers interested in business with India, and the country’s prestige is at its peak.
The third question reflects two set of opinions. One view shared by a large number of people who have developed admiration for Modi is that the conversion programme and consequently the assertion of Hindutva is aimed at sabotaging Modi’s rising popularity, at negating the growing feeling that he is being inclusive in his welfare programmes, increasing job opportunities, and in his plans for improving the quality of life.
In short those who really despise him and are resourceful are getting increasingly worried that he has almost become the most powerful leader today, and thus are conspiring to pull him down.
The other view is that conversions et al. are part of Modi’s hidden agenda, while he talks about development and change others in the Party in connivance with him are trying to achieve aims of Hindutva.
This view is shared by those who have never reconciled to Modi becoming Prime Minister, liberals, leftists and fundamentalists in both communities. The suspicion naturally falls on the forces behind sabotaging him and his plans which include a few senior BJP leaders who have been rendered irrelevant and some RSS elements who are upset with his attempts to prove in reality that he is not divisive.
So what is the reality—are forces out to damage Modi’s credibility and his strong position through tactics like conversion which they very well know will drive away a large number of young Modi supporters. It will damage him internationally. And will undo all his efforts so far to appear inclusive in his governance and policy-making. And if as rumoured, powerful elements among the BJP’s Old Guard and their sympathisers in the inner circle of Modi and a few RSS top brass unhappy with his liberalism are behind the campaign it would not be easy to counter.
Or is the other view, held by a large segment of the minority community and all the usual suspects, intellectuals, academicians, leftists and ‘secularists’ , that its all a plan Modi will talk of development while others will spread Hindutva, true. This is being called his hidden agenda. The anti-Modi brigade has been orchestrating that the silence of Modi over the conversion in Agra signifies his acquiescence. MPs were most vociferous in demanding that he must make a statement in the House. Everyone said that he being so strong today, he could, if he wished, stop conversions.
Any verdict would normally have taken time. But then Modi has taken action. He had a stern talk with party MPs about crossing the line and diverting attention from his government’s development agenda. He told his lawmakers that controversial statements made by some of them were hurting the party and government’s image and that no one should cross the “Lakshman Rekha”. This had an immediate impact.
The conversion in Aligarh planned for December 25 was called off after Modi’s warning. He is keen to etch a place for himself in world’s history apart from trying to be a long-serving Prime Minister and most popular leader in his own country. He reached the top by strategic moves to overcome strong opposition from LK Advani and his cohorts who tried all sorts of tricks to keep him out, including instigating Nitish Kumar to revolt against his appointment as head of the Campaign Committee. He slept hardly for a couple of hours while criss-crossing the country to be able to address over 400 rallies. It needed strong ambition and stamina. The people elected him, the BJP got into power riding his bandwagon. After all this hard effort he is unlikely to surrender all that he has achieved for something which, pragmatic that he is, realises is not possible in today’s India.
True it took him a few days to curb the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism—but one must note that these are the elements with RSS links, Modi could not act without considering the RSS angle. He must have consulted and gave them the low-down. That he could not let the country which was placidly progressing on various fronts set ablaze by the self-proclaimed promoters of Hindutva. These half-crazed men still live in the past when missionaries converted people to Christianity and earlier to that people were converted to Islam.
But India and Indians who voted for him have moved on, they live in a globalized world, where all differences, in complexion, faith, political ideologies and lifestyles have merged or adjusted. The outrage and opposition to such conversions—said to be done by offering various variety of allurements—was natural. But fanatics see nothing, hear nothing. They seem to believe they had found a long-term vocation. Why else they were seeking contributions—Rs5 lakh for a conversion of one Muslim and Rs2 lakh for a Christian.
When a section of Muslims were getting convinced that Modi was no longer the Modi of 2002, the Agra conversion and belief that it was part of Modi’s hidden agenda, naturally disturbed Muslims. Darul Uloom Deoband, the Islamic Seminary warned the Government to stop ‘illegal conversions’ and vowed to take steps to ‘protect the faith’. And although Darul Uloom Deoband and others assured that they would avoid confrontation but if conversions continue a vertical split in communal harmony could happen.
Narendra Modi could not simply get away by keeping silent. All his goodwill, his credibility he has built, and most of the young, his base support, could melt away before he could realise. Silence was being interpreted as acquiescence. And various theories, damning him began to float. Modi had to move and he did. The Hindutva torch-bearers would be quiet now, knowing that if they are out of his good books they would have to go back to singing kirtans and bhajans on the streets than sitting on the Treasury Benches in Parliament.
Similar to the anti-conversion Act that Modi got enacted in Gujarat, a legislation banning conversion has been suggested. Those who object to such an Act on the ground that it restricts the Freedom of Religion assured in the Constitution are the kind who never want any problem resolved. If the
Bill is defeated by the combined opposition of the Congress, TMC, BSP—Mulayam Singh describing the conversion in Agra of no significance means he will support the Bill—and a few others then they would have to pay a heavy cost politically.
Modi can go all-out blaming them and if along with that he moves for prosecution of the so-called promoters of Hinduism for acts that cause hatred and endanger peace, he would rise further in people’s esteem. It is indeed difficult for one who was pramukhsanchalak to act against such elements. But he did act against RSS and Bajrang Dal volunteers who tried to disturb an art exhibition in Ahmadabad when he was chief minister. As Prime Minister, Modi can, and in fact, has to do his best to curb the elements who are out to destroy the fabric of our society. He owes that much to the country. And he must remember people’s love is very fickle.
Modi claims to have a great regard for the Mahatma. He would do well to note what he said, “I fail to understand the shuddhi, tabligh, and proselytization as they are carried on today (1927).”
By Vijay Dutt