A history of conversions

Print edition : February 27, 2004

In Phulbani, Orissa, tribal people performing a religious rite. - ANEEL MISHRA

Identity, Hegemony, Resistance: Towards a Social History of Conversions in Orissa, 1800-2000 by Biswamoy Pati; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2003; pages xvii + 57, Rs.180 (hardbound).

THIS small yet powerful tract, delineating the social history of religious conversions in Orissa over the last two centuries, explodes many myths and contests certain conventional/commonsensical interpretations. Despite its brevity, it explains the complexities of conversions in the contexts of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Orissa with amazing clarity.

The issue of conversions has become quite controversial in the backdrop of the politics of religious identity in contemporary India, practised particularly by the Hindu Right. Orissa, where Adivasis constitute almost a quarter of the population, has obviously emerged as a contested terrain, as the Sangh Parivar perceives these `Vanavasi Hindus' as ideal `fodder' for the `proselytising' Christian missionaries. The brutal murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by an alleged associate of the Sangh Parivar, Dara Singh, has made it more compelling to understand the dynamics of religious conversions in Orissa with all their intricate interconnections. In this context, Biswamoy Pati's analysis is a significant contribution, as there hardly exists any critical literature on the subject.

Pati refutes certain commonsensical assumptions, such as Adivasis are Hindus and that all religions other than Hinduism are proselytising ones. Forcible conversions, argues Pati, were/are indeed very rare. Conversion, far from being a one-way affair, is an interactive process, in which the Adivasis/outcastes are themselves involved "with a desire to both contest and get into the order of caste".

Pati, who traces the history of conversions in Orissa to the pre-colonial era, subscribes to the thesis of the historian Bhairabi Prasad Sahu that early medieval/pre-colonial Orissa had undergone a different process of feudalisation and state formation. Owing to its preponderant tribal population and geographical variation, this process in Orissa was different from the Indo-Gangetic model. The extension of agriculture and land grants implied the conversion of most of the Adivasis into Sudras, a process that went on simultaneously with their peasantisation. Alongside this, their chiefs were absorbed into the Varna order as Kshatriyas. The classic Varna system was, however, found to be notional in Orissa, as one witnesses primarily two Varnas during this period - Brahmins and Sudras - and a virtual absence of Vaishyas and Kshatriyas. While peasantisation meant Hinduisation in the case of pre-colonial Orissa, in the case of neighbouring Bengal it was associated with Islamisation, as brilliantly shown by Richard M. Eaton.

COLONIAL intervention, particularly through the introduction of land settlement and monetisation, further reinforced the process of conversion of the Adivasis. For instance, the Ranas of Jaypore and the Gonds of Sambalpur started wearing the `sacred thread' and "invented new legends to relocate themselves within the framework of Hinduism". Colonialism's strategy to make settlement with `rulers', particularly the princes and the landed zamindars, accentuated the process of Kshatriyaisation in Orissa. The Kshatriyaisation and the Hinduisation converged too; Pati cites Census data to argue that affluent sections of Adivasis preferred to be identified as Kshatriyas/Khandayats.

Pati further elaborates how these shifting identities marked the phenomenon of conversion. Despite conversion to Hinduism, most of the Adivasis retained their social and religious customs. The brahminical order was comfortable with this as long as the integration and hierarchisation of these `ancient people' was kept within the defined boundaries of transgression. Pati focusses mainly on two methods of conversion. The first was comparatively non-violent and long-drawn, and in this sense a hegemonic process. The second included a set of terror campaigns by the coloniser and his privileged tenure holders in the hills. The latter process indicates the decimation of the Adivasis, who were forced to convert or join the outcastes.

Conversion, argues Pati, has always been a complex process involving questions of identity and also resistance. During the 19th century, colonialism speeded up its mission of `civilising' the `barbarians' though brute terror and exploitation, for instance, extracting free labour to build communication links to extend its control and snatching away the traditional rights of the Adivasis over forests. Moreover, in order to rationalise the exploitation, it built up certain stereotypes. For instance, Kandhas were stigmatised as a heinous criminal tribe as they practised meriah (human sacrifice) - completely overlooking the role of some of the princes and zamindars who actually encouraged this practice. It was obvious in the context of an entrenched colonial-feudal nexus in Orissa.

Pre-colonial Hinduisation and colonial intervention never went unchallenged; these invited protests and resistance in various forms. For example, the emergence of a socio-reformist movement called Mahima Dharma, particularly in the post-1866 famine period. This movement not only resisted Hinduisaton and upper-caste domination, but also disapproved of Christianity for its close identification with colonialism, which had devastated the world of the Adivasis and outcastes. With regard to Hinduisation, Pati lucidly narrates the nuances as to how the Adivasis contested domination and at the same time negotiated for accommodation within the Hindu Varna order.

Pati categorically refutes the Hindu Right propaganda on the magnitude of the conversion to Christianity during the colonial period by arguing that "the magnitude of conversions was hardly felt in the region, in spite of the projections". While colonialism's association with Christianity was found to be the major reason of this aversion, there were other complexities as well. For instance, the Adivasi converts felt proud to flaunt their primordial tribal identity rather than their acquired religious identity.

During the national movement, Hinduisation took a new direction. Many Adivasis and outcastes gave up beef and liquor under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi provided "a space and a possibility - howsoever limited - to the outcastes and the Adivasis, especially in terms of gaining some respect in their immediate environment, and through this incorporated a large number of them into the struggle against colonialism". Thus Gandhi's process of Hinduisation integrated Adivasis and outcastes into the anti-colonial struggle without confronting the brahminical order in any way. The colonial/feudal order, being unable to crack this integration, resorted to and reinforced its faith in Hinduisation and the brahminical order.

The Left in Orissa, through its active involvement in peasant struggles and State people's movements, posed some threat to Hinduisation. However, it was successfully `contained' not only by the colonial/feudal order but also by the Orissa Congress.

Pati demolishes the myth of a monolithic Christianity by presenting the details of the rebellion of the Mundas of Gangpur, a princely state. In the course of the rebellion, Munda converts not only resisted imperialism but also refused to accept the codes of the Church. The way Christianity was transformed by some `native' preachers, and interpreted by the Munda converts to become a weapon in their struggle, demonstrates Christianity's complexities and pluralities, given its association with popular aspirations and militancy.

Even after Independence, many of the practices associated with conversions and Hinduisation continued in Orissa. The new administration unfortunately glorified some colonial/feudal practices and played up many Hindu symbols such as the Jagannath cult, to establish its legitimacy.

The Sangh Parivar's Ram Janmabhoomi agitation during the late 1980s has led to an unprecedented level of homogenisation and religious polarisation in Orissa. As a result, ironically, the victims of the brahminical order - the outcaste Panas and the Adivasi Kandhas - clash among themselves. Kandhas, who consider themselves to be part of the Hindu Varna order, oppose the entry of Panas into a Siva temple in Phulbani.

Brevity at times creates problems in understanding the magnitude of the social history of conversions spanning two centuries. Pati's work, despite providing an excellent analysis of pre-colonial and colonial conversions, does not do enough justice to the post-colonial period. It misses the role of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's mission of Hinduisation of Adivasis and aggressive campaign against Christian missionaries in tribal areas. Pati apparently prefers not to dabble much in the politics of the present, which is perhaps not an ideal domain for a historian.

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