Legacy of colonialism

Foreign swadeshi

Print edition : January 09, 2015

At the VHP's Virat Hindu Sammelan in Mumbai on December 14. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The ghar wapsi campaign illustrates how the Sangh Parivar continues a legacy of colonialism in calling for a demographically “Hindutva” nation. In reality, the theocratic notion of India as Hindutva is a very recent pardesi, or foreign, intervention.

IT may be strange to recall the song “ghar aaya mera pardesi” from the 1951 film Awara in relation to the ghar wapsi (homecoming) programme being organised by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated organisations across different States. Bear with me as I explore this association. I make this point to extend Ajaz Ashraf’s recent article in Firstpost where he argues that the Sangh Parivar is embracing a colonial version of India’s past as gloriously Hindu. The argument I make is that the ghar wapsi campaign illustrates how the Sangh Parivar continues a legacy of colonialism in calling for a demographically “Hindutva” nation.

The ghar wapsists, if I may call them that, conjure up a spectacle of Islam and Christianity as pardesi, or foreign, as invading religions, and proselytisers of these religions convert the bodies and souls of the ghar wale to something pardesi. As a counter to the so-called home-wrecking effect of conversion, the ghar wapsists claim to perform rituals that will enable the converted to reconvert, to return home. The association of the lyrics of the song with the so-called homecoming campaign serves to show how ghar wapsi is not the dreamy embrace of home or love as in the song sequence. Judging by the history of ghar wapsi, or paravartan (reconversion) as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) terms it, ghar wapsi is not homecoming at all but a dictatorial demand to force those already living within the home of the nation to bow to the assertion that India is now being transformed into a theocracy. The tones and terms of this demand are antithetical to love, spiritual, romantic or material, to put it mildly. This is illustrated in the ways in which hatred of Muslims takes the form of allegations of love jehad campaigns. Hatred oozes for the so-called pardes foreign religions of Christianity and Islam. Hatred is directed against the ghar wale who have dared to convert or whose ancestors converted to Christianity or Islam. In this sense, the idea of ghar wapsi invokes the violent meanings of home and nation familiar to feminists who speak of the patriarchal organisation of both. The home and the religious demography of the nation are continually being invoked to convert, to strike terror, to rape and to kill.

But there is another kind of connection to explore with the above-mentioned song from Awara. One could say that the pardesi has come home in a number of ways. If pardesi means foreign, the real pardesis of the ghar wapsi campaign are not Christians or Muslims: they are the Sangh Parivar. A very pardesi idea inspired Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who invented Hindutva or Hinduness as a modern “religion”. Savarkar was inspired by the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini’s argument for a culturally homogeneous, muscular and masculinist nationalism and state. Many of the foreign funders of Hindutva are literally pardesi non-resident Indians (NRIs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs), busy demanding minority rights and clout through multiculturalism in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia while funding the Sangh Parivar’s many anti-minority and casteist communal projects, including anti-conversion campaigns and reconversion drives. So the Sangh Parivar, in effect, highlights a destructive ghar aaya mera pardesi effect; the pardesis are the RSS and their foreign funders. These are not, of course, the bumbling chaplinesque Raj Kapoor figures who inhabit a secularist cinemascape; they are the lathi-wielding, fire-burning, muscular nationalists whose unheimlich kinship in our time is with their neo-Nazi white supremacist counterparts in the West.

As with their neo-Nazi brethren, historical analysis, or even an indigenous precolonial South Asian understanding of religiosity or spirituality is not part of Sangh Parivar Hindutva discourse. The argument that nations should have homogeneous populations with regard to religion or race is a colonial one. John Stuart Mill put forward this line of reasoning in the tradition of political liberalism. In reality, homogeneity of race or religion has never existed in any given place or at any time in any history. There is, therefore, a colonial history to the ways in which race and religion have been defined.

As a demographic category materialised through census readings, religious identity is emptied of the lived experience of religiosity or spirituality. The rich and evolving diversity of religiosities and spiritualities, faiths, beliefs and practices, and the varieties of indigenous cosmologies were unfortunately deemed “Hindu” in a colonial period for the purpose of the census. This is not to suggest a golden precolonial period of religious diversity. Caste politics, oppressions, discriminations are all a part of this history. However, it is to suggest that Hindu as a census category subsumed everything not Muslim or Christian. And this is an unfortunate consequence of the religion-based demography of British administrators.

The other terrible legacy had to do with classifying religion as native or non-native. Should we really take seriously the assumption that Sufi Islam, which may have come to India in the seventh century, and Christianity, which may have arrived in the first century, are non-native while Sangh Parivar Hindutva nationalism, invented in the 1920s, is native? This notion of native and non-native religions was key to colonial bureaucracy, was assumed by secular discourse, and has now taken a fascist turn with the ghar wapsi programme. As the literary scholar Gauri Vishwanathan has argued in her 1998 book Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief, the All-India Census run by the British administration between 1872 and 1901 was instrumental in these forms of classification. And these in turn influenced the ways in which a conservative upper-caste Hindu elite threatened by mass conversions, mostly of Dalits or tribal groups to Christianity, began to imagine Hindu demography as threatened by conversion as evidenced by the 1909 publication Hindus: A Dying Race by U.N. Mukherjee.

It was in this period of colonial demography that the brahminical ritual of shuddi, a cleansing ritual for those who had become impure by transgressing the taboo of crossing the seas, was reworked by the Arya Samaj to mimic conversions to Christianity. More recently, the historian Cassie Adcock has discussed the contested politics of shuddi in her book The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom (2013). She argues that it was directed not only at Muslims and Christians but was an integral part of casteist politics. The contradictions at the heart of the Arya Samajist practice of conversion are blindingly clear. Shuddi was asserted as the right of Hindus to proselytise and convert. Yet, it was not deemed conversion based on the idea that India is a Hindu nation. Simultaneously, it was a way of “adjusting” relations domestically between the so-called Hindu communities. Presumably, this discourse had to do with addressing caste oppression. The Samajists, of course, struggled among themselves about the limits of the eradicability of untouchability even as they attempted to convert Dalit communities in that era. For example, the Lahori Rahtiyas sought to join the Jalandhar Arya Samaji community at a time of famine in the early 1900s but were continually denied access to the village wells by caste Hindus.

The reconversion campaigns by Hindutva organisations carry on the legacy of these contradictions. But the contradictions appear increasingly irrelevant in the face of brazen stagings of ghar wapsi as national spectacles. After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto contains the promise of a national anti-conversion law and the current Prime Minister is an RSS member. The discourse of “what’s wrong with Hindu’s converting” appears in online comments on the ghar wapsi issue alongside statements by the Sangh Parivar that reconversion is homecoming, not conversion. The spectacles deliberately appear to reference anti-conversion laws, which target conversions by force or fraud, as in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh. The Dharma Jagran Manch handing out ration cards in Vednagar Basti in Agra is a case in point. Those anti-conversion laws were put in place to target Christians and Muslims. And, the ghar wapsists capitalise on the legal assumption that conversion to Hinduism is not conversion. Yet, it is important to emphasise that reconversion is conversion. It is after all an attempt to convert religious identity. Ghar wapsi is not homecoming, it is pardes bakwasi. An interview the VHP’s Jugal Kishore, in charge of the Ghar Wapsi Abhiyan, or the homecoming campaign, gave Tehelka magazine, illustrates this issue. Kishore states that stringent laws should be brought into place against “foreign funders” of conversions. Yet, this is precisely what the VHP does—collect money through its overseas networks and organisations to fund its conversions as the report “The Foreign Exchange of Hate” details.

Ghar wapsi is an assertion of fascist power. In Maharashtra, as in Rajasthan, caste identities are being prepared for potential converts as reported by Indian Express. There is something sinister about assigning caste identities to these potential converts when they may have converted to escape caste discrimination in the first instance. And who is to decide which caste a given person or community is to belong to? The public announcements regarding ghar wapsi events or conversions are threatening. These announcements are accompanied by listings of names of Christian and Muslim families, conversion targets, reminiscent of the provision of lists of names in the Gujarat massacres of Muslims. For the Sangh Parivar, ghar wapsi is a question of equating religious identity with national allegiance; it labels Muslims and Christians as anti-national. This ethos is a direct transgression of the Indian constitutional right to religious freedom.

Article 25 (1) of the Indian Constitution promises religious freedom or the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion. This right provoked heated arguments in the Constituent Assembly debates as a Hindutva sentiment was mobilised against the right to propagate, interpreted as the right to convert. Dr B.R. Ambedkar defended this right as did other Constituent Assembly delegates such as Frank Anthony, an Anglo-Indian member. The Indian Constitution finally did assert the right to religious freedom but subjected the right to profess, practise or propagate religion to “public order”. And so a door was left open for Hindutva anti-conversion campaigns, which claimed that conversions to Christianity or Islam were a threat to public order. One of the first state anti-conversion laws was passed in 1967 in Odisha. It is no coincidence that this was a consequence of the entry of Hindutva campaigners in the 1960s. The violence against Christians in Odisha in 2007-08 was a consequence of years of VHP and Bajrang Dal activity. This is what the report “From Kandhamal to Karavali” details extensively in its findings. It is obvious to say that what we are witnessing is the consequence of the election of an RSS Prime Minister and a BJP manifesto, which called for a national ban on conversions. However, it is important to emphasise that it is the Sangh Parivar that is a threat to public order.

Pawan Khera has argued in his NDTV blog that these ghar wapsi campaigns are a ruse designed to confuse liberals and raise support for a national anti-conversion law through the spectacle of conversions by force or fraud. He says there is no need for a separate national anti-conversion law since Nand Kishore Lal, leader of the Dharma Jagran Manch, who engaged in conversion by fraud has been charged with promoting enmity between two religious groups.

In this political climate, it is perhaps necessary to recall the pardesiness of Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi movement as colonial mimicry is laughable. Yet, the politics of hate and violence that attends “reconversions” makes this an unfunny business. A counterpoint to the claim of the eroding numbers of Hindus is not only to say that Hindus do not seem to be in any danger of becoming an extinct species but to make the argument that Hindutva’s theocratic notion of India as Hindutva is a very recent pardesi invention. Add the notion of “lived religion” to the mix—the idea that most people live their everyday lives not by following doctrinal rules and regulations, but by drawing on syncretic forms of religion or spirituality for their own purposes—and we begin to understand that lived religion is a much more fluid thing than institutional, or fascist, classifications of identity. A further point to emphasise is that some South Asian forms of Islam and Christianity have a much older existence in the subcontinent than the ultranationalist Hindutva now seeking converts. One might well ask: Kiska ghar? Kahan se wapas? (Whose home? And return from where?) There is something definitely very, very pardesi about ghar wapsi and the Sangh Parivar.

Dr Goldie Osuri is Associate Professor in sociology at the University of Warwick, U.K. She is the author of Religious Freedom in India: Sovereignty and (Anti) Conversion (2013).

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