By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
18 December 2014
One of the curious things about the debate on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates going aggressive on converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism is the outrage of the liberals. “How can (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi remain silent when the RSS is going on the rampage on conversions?” is their pointed question. They say that Modi did not utter a word of Hindutva during the election campaign and, therefore, neither he nor the RSS can consider the electoral victory as an endorsement of Hindutva. Therefore, the RSS’ predatory acts of conversion are untenable. They feel that Modi should control the RSS-wallahs.
There are loopholes in the argument of the liberals, though their rage has a charmingly righteous ring to it. The first loophole: The RSS and the BJP cannot be expected to play by liberal rules. The RSS’ hostility towards the religious minorities is barely concealed. The BJP maintains an ambivalent attitude towards them. They are right-wing and they will do right-wing politics — that is majoritarian politics. The second loophole: the liberals rationalise conversions of the Hindu lower castes to either Christianity or Islam saying that the Hindu caste order is unjust, and the Hindu lower castes and classes have every right to throw off the yoke of caste and escape into other religions. Despite the good intent, the argument turns out to be inconsistent because if choosing a faith is an individual decision, then the individual can turn to any religion. For example, if a Hindu can convert to Christianity or Islam, so can a Muslim or a Christian to Hinduism. The liberals are wary on this point.
The problem is that conversion is never an individual choice in India as it is in contemporary Europe and America, where individuals freely convert to other religions, especially to Islam and sometimes to Buddhism. In India, conversion is a political act. Ambedkar and his Mahars converting to Buddhism was a political gesture. But there is a bit of complicated history to conversion in modern India, especially from 19th century on. The Christian missionary activity in north India, in contrast to what had happened in Kerala in the first century of the Common Era (CE), had intensified during the British rule though the government of the day kept a meticulous distance from the evangelical activities of the various churches.
The Hindu response to Christian missionary activity was curious. Sections of the modern Hindu middle classes saw Christianity as part of modern Western civilisation which was a misperception. Modern West had gone through various revolts, the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic Church, and the revolt of Age of Reason against both. They did not notice this. Many of the modern Hindus wanted to reform the superstitious Hinduism of their day on Protestant Christian lines. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayananda Saraswati followed the Christian model in different ways. Roy’s Brahmo Samaj was a Protestant congregation without idols. Saraswati too rejected idol worship and he wanted to go back to the Vedas, cleansed of their unscientific liturgical portions. He had also introduced what he called the Shuddhi Movement, which is conversion of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians to Hinduism. Brahmo Samaj turned out to be tepidly rationalist and withered away in due course. Arya Samaj was dismissed by the orthodox Hindu establishment of the day, and it remains on the fringes of Hindu society till this day. Saraswati had better success in Punjab, where he antagonised the Sikhs. Khushwant Singh in the second volume of his A History of the Sikhs argued that the Singh Sabhas were a response to the Arya Samaj. The RSS has inherited the Arya Samaj legacy in Punjab and the friction with the Sikhs, especially the Akali elements of the community, persists.
Swami Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission is again an imitation of the Christian missionary model. Vivekananda realised that what made the Christian missionaries acceptable was their social work, setting up of hospitals and schools and their solicitude towards the poor and the marginalised. Vivekananda’s ‘Christian socialist’ vision never took root in the work of the Ramakrishna Mission.
The RSS has taken to the Christian missionary mode in the 1970s and 1980s. The evangelical activity that the RSS had undertaken in scheduled tribes areas of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Gujarat is again an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the missionaries. But it does not seem to have succeeded in its act of imitation because it lacks the Christians' religiosity and compassion. The Christian missionaries were once part of the Western colonial and imperialist quest, but now only the religious quest — of spreading the message and converting people — remains. The global Christian missionaries are seasoned evangelists and the RSS cannot counter their sophisticated approach. The RSS cannot hope to go out of India and convert people of other countries and faiths to Hinduism the way the Christian evangelists did.
The RSS, therefore, turns conversions into a political act, having failed to inspire on the social and religious fronts. The RSS through the conversion campaign wants to ensure national unity through Hinduism. It follows the old Protestant assumption, especially in England of the 17th century, where Roman Catholics were suspected to have extra-territorial allegiance. Religion as a means of national unity is the credo of right-wing political parties in Europe, and the RSS believes in it as well.
Meanwhile, Muslims in India after the First World War falsely believed that the Ottoman Empire was a symbol of global Muslim unity. They had failed to contend with the nationalist aspirations of the various Arab countries. Modern Muslims entertained the romantic notion of pan-Islam, which remained a figment of the imagination of poets like Iqbal. Modern Arabs too dreamed of pan-Arabism and they found out the hard way that it was unrealistic.
The RSS’s dreams of national unity based on Hinduism will meet the same fate as that of the pan-Islamists and the pan-Arabists. The RSS believes, and the BJP subscribes to the illusion, that the Turkish invasions of 11th and 12th centuries were due to disunity among the Hindus, and they want to unite Hindus now to preserve India. The RSS, with its me-too Christian evangelical spirit, has no understanding of the Hindus. The Hindus are easygoing, modern, and hedonistic, with an indolent sense of sensuous spirituality. They take pride in liberal Indian, but not Hindu, nationalism. The RSS’s antagonistic acts of conversion will cause revulsion among a majority of Hindus and the BJP will lose its Hindu constituency.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is editorial consultant with dna