Hindu plans for ‘reconversion’ anger Indians

The controversial programme, dubbed Ghar Vapsi, or 'return home', programmes, is based on the claim that the ancestors of these families were once Hindus.

FIle picture from 2009 of Hindu activists in Orissa 'reconverting' Christians in Orissa in ceremonies which are named 'homecoming ceremonies' by the Hindu leaders who believe they are returning to their original faith. Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The National
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NEW DELHI // Opposition legislators stalled business in India’s upper house of parliament on Tuesday, protesting plans by right-wing Hindu groups to convert Muslims and Christians.

The protests were linked to allegations that a group called the Dharm Jagran Manch converted 50 poor Muslim families to Hinduism last week, as well as to an announcement by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that it would initiate 4,000 Christian and 1,000 Muslim families into Hinduism on December 25.

The conversions are being dubbed “Ghar Vapsi,” or “return home”, programmes, based on the claim that the ancestors of these families were once Hindus.

The controversial programme is scheduled for Christmas Day in the Uttar Pradesh town of Aligarh. “Aligarh was chosen because it’s time we wrest the Hindu city from Muslims,” Rajeshwar Singh, an RSS official, told the Economic Times newspaper. “It is a city of brave Rajputs and their temples on whose remains Muslim institutions have been established.”

Churches in the area have requested additional security on Christmas Day, said Amit Agarwal, a senior police officer in Aligarh. “We have assured them of full protection under law,” he told the Press Trust of India news agency.

In parliament, opposition parties have accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the political wing of the RSS – of encouraging such “reconversion” drives and of failing to control the RSS. “It is a very, very serious matter, and there is a threat to the unity of the country,” Mallikarjun Kharge, a Congress party leader, said last Thursday in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP’s minister of parliamentary affairs, contended that “Hindutva” – the term applied to Hindu nationalism – was synonymous with Indianness. Mr Naidu also proposed laws to prohibit conversion. “Let us introspect. Let there be anti-conversion laws in all states as also at the [federal level],” he said.

Such laws would favour Hindus, who formed 80 per cent of India’s 1.02 billion population as of 2001, the year of the last census from which religious data is available, while Muslims formed 13 per cent of the population and Christians 2.3 per cent.

Anti-conversion laws would thus help keep India overwhelmingly Hindu, and would prevent Christian and Islamic groups from proselytism, even though the constitution gives religious groups “the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.

Laws against conversions do exist in some states, although they vary from state to state. Among the most stringent is the anti-conversion law in Gujarat, passed in 2003 when Narendra Modi – now prime minister – was chief minister of the state. Gujarat’s law requires an aspiring convert to first get permission from the district magistrate. Breaking this law can invite three years’ imprisonment.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion, has called the process of obtaining permission “a humiliating bureaucratic procedure”.

“This is disrespect of freedom of religion or belief,” Mr Bielefeldt told the Wall Street Journal in March this year, calling the terms used in the formulation of Gujarat’s anti-conversion law vague and loosely defined.

For instance, the law – formally called the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003 – prohibits any “allurements” such as “any gift or gratification, either in cash or kind”. This could conceivably include Buddhism’s offer of escape from the rigid Hindu caste system to lower-caste Hindus and Dalits.

Samuel Thomas, a Christian pastor in New Delhi and a member of a network of churches in the capital, said he was apprehensive about the repercussions of such a national law, if it were to be passed.

“We all have a constitutional right to propagate and share our faith,” Mr Thomas told The National. “But under this government, we are naturally worried that this law will be used as a tool to suppress us and spread fear about the church amongst people.”

“Such a law can curtail a lot of our freedom,” Mr Thomas said. “The church, I’m sure, will stand against it.”

The RSS’s main argument in the conversion debate has long been the fact that, while Islam and Christianity are evangelical religions, trying to bring outsiders into their folds, Hinduism has suffered and lost members because it has refrained from such evangelism.

Mr Thomas said that, in his view, the church was merely expressing its belief.

“I have the right to share what I believe in,” he said. “If I have found a medicine useful for my backache, and if I have a friend who also has backache, it is not wrong for me to suggest that medicine. But it’s up to my friend to decide whether he takes it or not.”

From the Muslim community, Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Hyderabad-based political party, has called for Mr Modi’s government to rein in organisations such as the RSS.

“Will talk of religious conversion help in development, which the government so often talks about?” Mr Owaisi asked in parliament. “We are not scared of the RSS ... We will continue to follow our religion.”