Converting to, or returning to Hinduism, is an exercise fraught with risks in India. And yet, there are many and more, who, while preferring to remain anonymous, are resolute on making this journey.
Shah (name changed), 27, hails from Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district. A Muslim by birth, Shah read the namaz as well as recited Hindu shlokas. He visited the local mosques, and also worshipped at the Hindu temples. “Ours is a liberal family. Actually, most of the Muslim families in our village are liberals like us,” he told Swarajya. “We have as much faith in Allah as Chowdeshwari Mata. I was personally very attached to Chowdeshwari Temple while growing up.”
When Shah was in his teens, he faced a crisis that “shook the foundations of his faith”. The family shifted to Hyderabad, where he was introduced to ‘shirk’ (the sin of practising polytheism in Islam). In the local mosques, he began to be increasingly told that a true Muslim doesn’t indulge in idol worship or accept other religions. The maulvis (Muslim clerics), he says, began to drill into his head that all forms of prayer must only be directed at the expansion and glory of Islam. At one point, Shah began to believe them, donned the Islamic cap and became a five-time namazi. However, he could not sustain it for long.
Deep down, he longed for the inclusive culture he grew up in, he says. He did not like maulvis insisting on the slaughter of goats on Eid. “None of the Muslim families in my village ever slaughtered goats or other animals on Eid. We never ate cow meat either,” he says. He turned to the internet for answers and discovered a Hindu rights organisation named Agniveer. “I reached out to them with all the concerns regarding my faith. They listened to me, held several sessions with me and told me things that uncluttered my mind,” he told Swarajya.
“Today, I convincingly and proudly identify myself as a Hindu by ancestry and culture,” he says.
Shah says the organisation never asked him to convert to Hinduism ritually or stop doing namaz. However, he says he has decided to raise his children as Hindus. “I have a Telugu surname that is shared by Hindus in Kurnool. So it wouldn’t be a problem,” he says. Bandi, Makan, Pandlapuram, Pinjari and Rajammagari are some such surnames, Shah said.
Like Shah, there are several Muslims in India who acknowledge their Hindu ancestry and want to “return” to their origins, says Vashi Sharma, Agniveer’s president, who holds a doctorate from Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay. “They watch our videos online and reach out to us. We counsel them. If they are willing, we conduct a simple ritual initiating them into Hinduism,” he told Swarajya. The ritual, usually, is a hawan. “Those who want to formally convert must give an affidavit in the district magistrate office. We facilitate the paperwork,” he says.
The organisation, said Sharma, has also facilitated mass conversions in the past, around thousand people in a day in one case. For that, it was Agniveer that approached the Muslims. “We identified some villages in Aligarh that are home to Rajput Muslims. They have not given up Hinduism. They continue to use surnames like Rana, Chowdhary and Chauhan, and even get puja performed in temples through their Hindu friends,” said Sharma. “We reached out to the panchayats and offered to bring them back to their ancestral faith if they were willing. They readily agreed.”
Sharma said this approach doesn’t work every time. “In one case, we ran into trouble when some Muslim villagers trained pistols and guns at us for making such a proposal,” he said.
Swarajya could not independently verify whether those who underwent mass conversions in the said villages continue to hold on to their new faith after five years.
The organisation called the event ‘ghar wapsi’ (loosely translated as homecoming), a phrase coined by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates as a code for converting non-Hindus of Hindu ancestry to Hinduism.
In the mainstream (read English) Indian media – that has never added conversion activities by other faiths into its discourse – ghar wapsi has found ample space. But despite the disproportionate focus on it, the coverage has, at best, been shallow and superficial. For one, all ghar wapsi efforts – and indeed all Hindu efforts at conversion – are dismissed as being forced. The reports invariably carry an alarming tone.
Agniveer’s founder Sanjeev Newar, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati and Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta, says they used ghar wapsi for lack of a better word but run a full-fledged ‘Be Hindu’ programme for anybody willing to enter the Hindu fold. “We are open about it. It is a freedom guaranteed to anyone under Article 25 [of the Constitution],” he told Swarajya. He claimed the organisation has converted around 5,000 people to Hinduism in the last few years. He, however, said they placed a greater emphasis on ‘mental conversion’ than legal conversions as the latter, if done only to inflate numbers, may not mean much for the Hindu religion in the long run.
“We want more and more people to adopt the Hindu philosophy and way of life. We believe it is good for the individual as well as the world,” said Newar. “There may be some organisations that conduct mass ghar wapsi events only to meet targets. We don’t believe in that.”
A ghar wapsi that was shown by the media as well as Uttar Pradesh Commission for Minorities to be a case of ‘fraud’ – incidentally one that put the practice into the public discourse, perhaps, for the first time – was a 2014 case, where a Hindu outfit allegedly converted around 50 Muslim families to Hinduism. The families told the commission they were promised a house each by one Hindu Jagran Samiti and were made to sit around a hawan kund and perform ahuti. However, the families said they were still practising Islam. The main accused, Nand Kishore Valmiki, was later slapped with the Goonda Act.
Activists say the case dealt a body blow to Hindu conversion programmes in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states. According to Newar, the administration does not give permission for mass Hindu conversion events no matter how genuine they are “while others continue to have a free run”.
Not many Hindu organisations in India are as open about their conversion activities. Swarajya spoke to several activists affiliated to the RSS and its ideological fronts, but nearly all of them spoke strictly on the condition of anonymity, and kept mum on several questions. Devdutta Maji, president of a West Bengal-based ‘apolitical’ outfit called Singha Bahini, was one of the few who admitted that the outfit actively works to bring Muslim men and women into the Hindu fold. He said they tell the [Muslim] community members that they would enjoy greater freedom as Hindus. “It is they who approach us. To the men, we say they won’t have to live under the tyranny of the maulvis or the fear of the fatwas. To the women, we say they would be saved from anti-women activities like nikah halala and triple talaq,” Maji said. “What we say is the truth,” he added.
One of the key focus areas of the outfit was in facilitating marriages of Muslim women with Hindu men, said Maji. “It’s all consensual and it’s strictly between majors.”
Maji, who has worked with Hindu activist Tapan Ghosh for 10 years, said that they have helped arrange over 450 such marriages in this period. Maji admitted that such unions put the lives of consenting couples at risk, and so the outfit, which has its support base in other states as well, takes responsibility for their safety. “We help them shift out of their hometown, and find accommodation and work. After three-four years, the families make peace and the couple returns to their hometowns. At least in most cases,” he said.
Hindu outfits have long been raising concerns over ‘love jihad’, a conspiracy theory about Muslim men luring, baiting and tricking Hindu women into romantic relationships with them with the ultimate goal of conversion. While there has been no evidence yet that proves the conspiracy as an organised criminal racket, there has been a large number of cases where Muslim men have kidnapped minor Hindu girls and got them converted, and entered into marital unions with Hindu women after hiding their Muslim identity or even the fact that they were already married.
According to Maji, the outfit’s efforts are directed at countering such activities. He, however, said their numbers are a tiny fraction of what they are seeking to counter. “For our 450, they have 45,000,” he said. “You see, there is much dedication for Islamic expansion worldwide. Such activities get international support. On the other hand, there is a very tiny fraction of Hindus who do this. And we are always short of resources and support.”
Asked if using women for this ‘number game’ is ethical, Maji says, “we believe it is for the good of the Muslim women only. All our couples are happy.”
Nearly all Hindu organisations that Swarajya spoke to, said they encourage and facilitate such unions as part of their conversion programmes. Rukhsar (name changed), who hails from Jharkhand, married her neighbour – a Hindu man, Chauhan by caste – in 2014. The couple has been living in Madhya Pradesh for the last four years, their stay facilitated by a member from Vishwa Hindu Parishad-affiliated Bajrang Dal. Rukhsar, 23, told Swarajya over the phone that she didn’t really like the atmosphere at her home and thought Hindu families give greater independence to their women. “I liked him [her neighbour] since childhood. So when he proposed to me, I agreed,” she said. Rukhsar, who changed her name after marriage, said she knew her family would never agree but the man promised her he would take care of everything. “A Bajrang Dal member helped us in eloping. We married in an Arya Samaj temple in Madhya Pradesh where I converted. We have been living here since then,” she said.
Asked if she misses her family or regrets her decision, Rukhsar said she secretly talks to her mother over the phone. “Actually my father knows that I am in touch with my mother but he has never talked to me since then,” she said. “He once told my mother that I should never enter the village again, nor should my husband.”
Rukhsar said she misses her family but is happy in her marriage. Of all the Hindu festivals and fasts that she observes, her favourite is Karwa Chauth; On Eid, she “cooks something nice at home”. She says she understands it very well that the door to her house and even the village is shut for her forever.
Hindu efforts at conversion are routinely denounced as unethical and communal, even as a sinister Hindutva conspiracy aimed at erasing minorities and other religious denominations from the Indian populace. But Hindu activists say they are only countering the aggressive conversion campaigns from expansionist religions like Islam and Christianity. “Religion is about numbers and numbers translate to political power,” an RSS-functionary based in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad told Swarajya on the condition of anonymity. “Hindus have never invaded other countries for conversion. We have been losing members for centuries. So we are only trying to keep up our numbers. We are up against mighty, well-funded forces.”
The RSS activist said that it was unfortunate that programmes like ghar wapsi have remained “underground”, demanding that the Indian government “mainstreams” it.
Activists say the “misinformation” against such Hindu efforts has resulted in several misconceptions around ghar wapsi.
“The most common objection is regarding caste. They deride ghar wapsi by asking what caste would the Muslim or Christian families converting to Hinduism enter into,” said Devdutta Maji. He said it a mistaken belief that caste is essential to being a Hindu. “Bengal is a largely caste-free society. The Hindus we make are also caste-less,” he said.
Maji said that if the families know their gotra (roughly translated as lineage or the clan to which a person belongs), they can always adopt it. And if they choose to ignore it despite knowing, they are free to do so. He said that in conversions he has supervised, people simply adopted ‘Dutta’ as their surname. An activist from Begusarai in Bihar told Swarajya that families in his area, “which are also caste-free”, settle for ‘Kumar’ for men and ‘Devi’ or ‘Kumari’ for women.
“How many of the existing Hindus in India know their gotra? They are still Hindus, right?” asked the RSS activist. “Same is for Hindu converts who do not know their original gotra. Not knowing gotra never comes in the way of their ghar wapsi.”
However, he said that since nearly all Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are aware of their gotra, they prefer to “return” to it. “Even those from the Scheduled Castes (SC),” he said.
Do the converts get caste benefits under the SC Act?
They can. A Supreme Court ruling in 2015 states that people who reconvert from Christianity to Hinduism are entitled to reservation benefits, on the ground that studies have shown that persons belonging to Hindu religion, who had embraced Christianity with some kind of hope or aspiration, have remained socially, educationally and economically backward.
However, nearly all activists that Swarajya spoke to admitted they know of no such successful case. “For families that converted several generations ago, it is extremely difficult as they no longer possess the caste certificates. But for recent converts who still have the caste certificates of their parents or grandparents, it should be easy,” said activist Vashi Sharma.
While activists are quick to allay caste concerns around Hindu conversion and insist that the transition is smooth, they rue that misconceptions abound not only among those who are seeking to convert but also among caretakers of Hindu faith. “If you want to embrace Islam or Christianity, you only need to approach the nearest mosque or church. But try going to your nearest temple and making a request to embrace Hinduism. They [priests] won’t have a clue,” said the Begusarai-based Bajrang Dal activist. “Most people do not even know that Arya Samaj has been conducting such conversion ceremonies for whoever is willing for decades,” he said.
The Hindu effort at conversion seems to be reactionary and a desperate exercise to minimise – if not nullify – the effect of relentless conversion missions by expansionist faiths. But such is the mistrust associated with it in popular discourse that the activities have, largely, remained underground. Part of the blame lies with the sangh that has evidently failed to own up to it by pretending that ghar wapsi is not a conversion programme. The term itself has come under fire for it assumes that once-Hindus are always Hindus. The sangh has since renamed its programme as ‘Dharma Jagran’. The reluctance to propagate it as their constitutional right, however, continues.