This month, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s powerful, male-only Hindu nationalist outfit, finally played a card it has long held in its hand. It announced an intensive conversion program to recover its “lost property” in India, feeding the dream of its cadre and allied organizations of an India that is nothing less than “100 per cent Hindu.”
The RSS has visibly grown in power and ambition in the seven months since the arrival of a new government — unsurprisingly, as it counts among its past members the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well as many old and new chief ministers in the states. With this carefully calculated provocation under a regime sympathetic to its ideology, the nongovernmental organization is seeking victories in many arenas.
In the realm of law, the RSS wants the passage of a stringent nationwide bill that would ban religious conversions. In the public sphere, it has arrogated the right to pronounce not just on the future of minorities in India but that of India’s Hindu majority as well. In the war of the religions, it seeks to spread the news that there is now a Hindu fundamentalism eager to goad and trump well-established Christian and Islamic fundamentals in India and around the world. And among its own vast cadre, it has generated the sense that it, much more than the government of the day or the diverse institutions of civil society and business, holds the keys to India’s future.
But let’s consider conversion as a recurring question in Indian history, one that reveals the tensions between a religious society and a secular state, between conservative and liberal adherents of a religion, between majorities and minorities in a multicultural milieu and between religions that have a history of proselytizing and those that don’t.
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The RSS’s new emphasis on conversion actually represents an about-face for the organization, which has for decades condemned missionary activity by Muslims and Christians in India. In so doing, the RSS often points out that Hinduism suffers because it has historically never been a proselytizing religion (its identity is partly based on being born into a pre-existing caste order). Therefore, if religion were to become a sort of free market in a multifaith country such as India, Hinduism could only stand to lose followers, not gain any.
As a Hindu, I have some sympathy with this viewpoint. Missionary activity has always seemed to me unacceptably crude and arrogant, not only in its conviction that there is a single truth that must be propagated, but also in its contempt for two of the forces that most strongly influence religious belief: the accident of birth in a certain religion, which is then followed by many years of socialization into its worldview.
To be sure, I respect an individual’s freedom not only to practice his or her faith but also to change it, as allowed in India by the constitution. But shouldn’t this follow from a person’s own dissatisfaction or personal struggle, not as an outcome of the outreach work or material inducements of an organized religion? I even find myself in sympathy with Mahatma Gandhi’s unusual idea that it’s best that a person rule out the option of changing his religion and instead live through his or her quarrels with it (as Gandhi very vividly did).
So if the RSS’s new and crude campaign were aimed at simply drawing attention to the absence of a level playing field in India on the issue of conversion, as well as to generate the necessary debate leading to the passage of such a bill, I could see the point of it. But in truth, even if such a bill were passed, the RSS would insist that it would nevertheless not be bound by the bill’s terms. That’s because the present aggressive campaign of the RSS is, in its own eyes, not about conversion but about reversion: the return, after many generations, of Christians and Muslims whose forefathers were once Hindu but were converted during India’s centuries under Islamic and colonial rule.
What the RSS seeks, then, is a new disequilibrium in which no other religious organization would have the right to convert people. No wonder it salivates at the prospect of a future India in which, by generating a consensus against the missionary activity of other religions, it can engineer a society that’s 100 percent Hindu.
And we shouldn’t lose sight of the even more slippery and sinister part of the RSS’s sinister agenda: the simultaneous conversion of a few hundred million people from Hinduism to Hindutva, the rancorous, intellectually and morally impoverished version of Hinduism that the RSS propagates.
This is a dour doctrine that — like other religious fundamentals — makes no distinction between myth and history, science and religious belief, and often comes close to caricature. It believes that Hinduism is a thought system perfect from its very origins, that all the problems of modernity and history were foreseen by Hindu sages 2,000 years ago, that all modern scientific achievement was prefigured in Hindu thought, that Indians of all faiths are “culturally Hindu,” that India’s four-fifths Hindu majority is under threat from minorities, and that all Hindus should fall in line with a singular interpretation of Hindu tradition controlled by a central authority. That body would be — surprise, surprise — the RSS.
What’s the view of the Modi government on all of this? In the firestorm that has erupted around the conversion issue, one man’s refusal to comment has come to seem as meaningful as any argument: Prime Minister Modi, who in recent months has taken his message of development and an economically resurgent India to many parts of the world, has remained shamefully silent. (As usual, his friends in the media have found inventive ways of coming to his defense.)
Perhaps this nongesture reflects Modi’s divided allegiance between the oaths and responsibilities of his present post and the convictions and prejudices of his often murky past. But there’s no getting past the truth that the evasion by this allegedly firm and decisive leader — the holder of the largest majority in India’s parliament in three decades — of the conversion debate holds profound implications for the freedom and future of all of India’s 1.2 billion people.
Novelist Chandrahas Choudhury is based in New Delhi.
© 2014, Bloomberg News