By Khaled Ahmed
January 24, 2015
The converters in India think Muslims and Christians have to be “reconverted” because they were originally Hindu, but were forced to become Muslims under centuries of Muslim rule.
Anand Teltumbde, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, January 3, stated: “On 8 December, 57 families (nearly 350 persons) in Ved Nagar in Agra were converted to Hinduism by Dharma Jagran Samanvaya Vibhag and Bajrang Dal activists, both RSS outfits. The event made big news when it was disclosed that these pavement dwellers/ rag-pickers and other destitute persons were promised that if they participated in the religious function, they would be given ration cards and below the poverty line (BPL) cards.”
Amarnath Motumal, the vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), reports: “About 1,000 non-Muslim girls are converted to Islam each year in Pakistan. Every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted, although exact figures are impossible to gather.”
The converters in India think Muslims and Christians have to be “reconverted” because they were originally Hindu, but were forced to become Muslims under centuries of Muslim rule. I suppose the Christians of India must have become Christians under the British Raj. At least in Pakistan, most of my Christian friends tell me they converted because they, as untouchables, were left out of the Hindu caste system. This is what Teltumbde says too: “The major reason behind their becoming Muslims or Christians [in India] was the exclusionary and oppressive caste system of Hinduism.”
In Pakistan, conversions are supposed to be rewarded with “paradise” to those who convert “pagans” because Islam, unlike Judaism, which it follows without Muslims realising it, is a proselytising religion. Nowadays, force is being used to convert Hindu girls in Sindh, which points to the hidden desire of the Muslim boy to acquire a wife by force with the help of the clergy.
In Punjab, Christians try to get by naming themselves like Muslims, at times not adding “Masih” as a suffix to their names. But the pressure of the blasphemy law is such that many convert. It is difficult to say if some of them, like Pakistan’s great cricketer who became Mohammad Yousuf from Yousuf Youhana, converted under divine inspiration.
In her wonderfully honest book, The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India (2014), Nandita Bhavnani describes how minority communities are shaped by the fear of conversion. In Sindh, where Muslims and Hindus had traditionally lived amicably together, the “binding” folklore arose out of Hindu devotion to Muslim Sufi saints who didn’t reject them, thus deactivating Muslim prejudice against them. But the very folklore that bound the two communities — less today, alas, because of the intrusion of extremist Islam from the north — carries the subliminal tale of the “conversion” fear.
The folk romance of Sassi and Punhu is a profound Sindhi expression of this fear. In Bhambor, Sassi is born to a Hindu couple who are told by soothsayers that she would grow up to marry a Muslim. The baby is put in a basket and allowed to float away on the waves of the Indus, till she lands with a Muslim washer man and grows in his home into a beauty of great fame. A prince of Makran hears about her and falls in love with her and leaves home to join her. The end is tragic because the Jam of Makran didn’t want his son to marry a Muslim washer man’s daughter. The Hindu family abandoned Sassi because she would convert; the prince was prevented from owning her because of difference of class.
The legend of Jhulelal is more pointed, sung by Pakistanis as a classic from the Sindhi mystic of Sehwan. Writes Bhavnani: “At the shrine of Uderolal in southern Sindh, there are both a Dargah and a temple. And at the famous Dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qualandar at Sehwan, Hindus still perform the Mehndi ceremony at the annual Urs. Numerous Hindus were — and still are — followers of Muslim Pirs, and would make Sharbat for Muharram processions, while Muslims often visited Hindu temples to partake of the Prasad.”
Mirkh Shah, the king of Thatta in southern Sindh, ordered the conversion of all his Hindu subjects within 24 hours. The Hindus prayed to the river Indus (Sindhu) and threatened to drown themselves en masse if it didn’t save them. The god of Indus caused the birth of Jhulelal to a Hindu couple. Baby Jhulelal appeared in Thatta threateningly, as a warrior on a white steed; and a lightning storm burned the palaces of the rascally Mirkh Shah to cinders.
What was Sufism to Sindhi Muslims was Bhakti to Sindhi Hindus, empowering both to confront the power of the Brahmin and the Muslim cleric. But the Hindu minority continued to face periodic conversions, even as the Lohana among them moved close to the social identity of their Muslim patrons. (The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Lohana whose ancestors had converted in Gujarat.)
The author notes: “It did not help the Hindus that several well-known individuals in Sindh were either converts or related to converts. They included Deoomal Kripalani, the elder brother of [the great Hindu leader] J.B. Kripalani, who converted around the turn of the century and became Shaikh Abdul Rahim. Growing highly active in Muslim politics, he later brought about the conversion of one of his younger brothers, apart from several other Lohana-Amil boys.”
In 1832, Parsram, from the family of Bhojoomal, a founder of Karachi, was accused of blasphemy. When his father, Seth Hotchand, went to the ruling Sindhi Talpurs to complain, he was forcibly converted, which act his son, Seth Naomal, never forgave and avenged by facilitating, as a military contractor, the conquest of Sindh by a British army.
After Sindh was annexed by the British, the scales tilted. The Hindu minority was converted into a majority by making Sindh part of the Bombay Presidency in 1847. Sindhi Muslims became a minority and had to submit to the not-so-even handed justice of the East India Company courts. Campaigns were started to separate Sindh from Bombay, which finally happened in 1937 at the cost of Hindu-Muslim solidarity in Sindh.
In the following century, Hindu and Muslim identities stiffened and clashed, even as they fought the British Raj under the Khilafat Movement. Both sides took to conversion campaigns till “two nations” were created in 1940, with what became known as the Lahore Resolution. It took a great “untouchable” Hindu leader, B.R. Ambedkar, to clear the communal mists by writing his monograph, Thoughts on Pakistan. Jinnah thought it was recommended reading for all Indians.
Why convert now? I can understand Pakistan doing it because the state is in crisis and, by some estimates, is falling apart and can’t prevent this criminal activity. But India is already populated by a great mass of Hindus; why should it add more, when it knows that the new Hindus will not be genuinely absorbed?
By the middle of this century, India is supposed to become an economic giant, second only to China. The BJP government is led by a man who can achieve this milestone through his economic policies. The world will convert to India because of the big market it is going to become. Isn’t it enough that at least three nation-states of South Asia boast national anthems based on the poems of the greatest Hindu genius, Rabindranath Tagore?
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’