India’s general election: the politics of religious conversion in pursuit of a Hindu Rashtra

As India approaches the Lok Shaba (parliamentary) election this year, the right-wing Hindu organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates (collectively known as the Sangh Parivar) are likely to take stock of their progress in realising their dreams of making India a Hindu Rashtra (Nation).

Constructed on M.S Golwakar’s ideology that since time immemorial, ‘mother India’ was formed of ‘one culture, one religion,’ the RSS pursues a narrative that the Hindu has fallen ‘victim’ to foreign religions, namely Islam and Christianity, and that the protection of the ‘faithful’ is imperative.

Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended to power in 2014, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat echoed the views of Golwakar,  claiming that India now offered a ‘favourable condition’ for all Hindus to organise themselves for the task ahead. Enrolment into the RSS ‘shakhas’ (branches) across the country has grown exponentially. Estimates in 2018 show that there are 58,967 shakhas in 37,190 places, compared to 44,982 shakhas in 29,624 places in 2014.

Energised by BJP’s political advantage, the emboldened RSS campaigns along anti-conversion rhetoric and conjures metaphors of ‘exile’ and ‘home.’ The group had already been spreading misinformation about  declining Hindu numbers, portraying the majority as an ‘endangered minority’, challenging political rivals to legislate on a national anti-conversion law, and threatening to carry out widespread ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) ceremonies.

Creating a narrative

Ghar wapsi ceremonies involve a process of so-called ‘reconversion,’ in which members of Dalit and Adivasi communities that have converted to other religions are reclaimed as Hindus. It invokes the message that all Hindus can now return to their origin, their beginning, reinforcing their primordial religious identity and authentic sense of nationhood. These ceremonies are not affected by the anti-conversion laws implemented in various states in India.

The RSS use the anti-conversion/ghar wapsi campaigns to create a narrative which suggests a move from fake to genuine, anti-national to national, outsider to brother.

Conversion from Hinduism continues to be an anathema to the RSS and also motivates them to work towards constraining the numbers of Indians belonging to the ‘other’ faiths, in particular Islam and Christianity as voting along religious lines is a threat to its political power.

Connected to this is the militant fervour with which anti-conversion laws are used by right-wing groups to oppose conversions from Hinduism, presuming that ‘force,’ ‘allurement,’ and ‘fraud’ are the underlying contributing factors to all conversions and therefore that investigations are necessary. This undermines the personal agency of a person’s choice to change their religion, to adopt a religion or belief of their choice or none at all – a key component of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Jharkhand (2017) and Uttarakhand (2018) are the states that have introduced legislation on anti-conversion most recently, joining Odhisa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003) and Himachal Pradesh (2006).

These laws are fundamentally flawed and arouse communal sentiments, which can result in targeted violence, invasion of privacy, property damage and the persistent harassment, intimidation and humiliation of minority communities like Dalits, Muslims and Christians.

In addition, incitement by BJP leaders who make inflammatory remarks against minority groups are linked to incidents of violence, as noted at the 2017 United Nations General Assembly by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Ambivalence and impunity

While the hostility of the RSS towards religious minorities is scarcely concealed, the ambivalence of senior government officials on the culture of impunity is equally disquieting.

As a charismatic orator, Prime Minister Modi has been criticised for his silence and apathy on these issues. If anything, his speeches on religious tolerance are blandly reassuring at best, with suggestive hints to the minority populace to look beyond their own interest to India’s ancient heritage and taking swipes at Christians against forcing their religion on others. The Prime Minster is yet to publicly hold to account the Sangh Parivar for their polarising narratives, which has brought out the worst in people. 

Linked to the anti-conversion/ghar wapsi narrative is the fixation on the numerical strength of Hindus. With the election drawing near, the debate on conversion has again been thrust into the public sphere by the BJP. India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh recently called for a national debate on mass religious conversion, citing it as a matter for concern.

Clearly, with the Hindu Rashtra agenda a viable goal, the motivation is to ensure that the numerical alignment in the name of religion is firmly managed and vigorously guarded, to the detriment of religious minorities in the country.

By CSW’s South Asia Team Leader