Instead of listening to the cries of despair of the marginalised sections being crushed under the Abrahamic aggression, those ‘pluralists’ occupy themselves with writing convoluted books on “Can Subalterns Speak?”

As the news began to emerge about the re-conversion of some Muslims to Hinduism in Agra, all hell broke loose. Champions of ‘pluralism’ are up in arms, parliamentarians stalled the house, media persons were despatched to dig out the truth of the “inducements” offered and Twitter was abuzz with denouncement of the “medieval deed”.

The points they are raising are nothing new; they have been continuously raised by Hindu and tribal groups about the fraud, inducements and threats used to convert people. Ironically, the people who are now outraged over the Agra conversions used to rebuke such ‘communal‘ objection as baseless paranoia. They passionately defended the ‘freedom of religion‘, which meant the right to propagate one’s faith as enshrined in the Constitution.

We were told if people were converting to other religion, they were simply choosing a better religion and life. Those who have become concerned about the communal polarisation and social tension caused by religious conversions never raised a finger on the open theatrics of Zakir Naik or the hate literature openly distributed by various missionary and Islamist organisations. They never had any qualms over breaking bread with people like John Dayal or Kancha Ilaiah who openly call for mass conversion out of Hinduism to create a post-Hindu India.

The current theatrics over religious conversions in Agra forces one to ponder over this ‘outrage’. Is it over religious conversions, allegedly under duress, or is it because people have converted to Hinduism this time? It seems that the main issue is the second. It is a great travesty of our time that while conversion out of Hinduism is seen as something positive; a manifestation of social empowerment and liberation but conversion to Hinduism is seen as a regressive trend. Why is Hinduism not treated as a legitimate spiritual tradition? Why is Hindu spirituality seen as irrational and superstitious whereas belief in angels, prophets and flying horses or pigs is acceptable?

Here this writer wishes to share the story of his maternal grandmother. She was a simple woman with simple beliefs. She loved the Ramayana and found the Mahabharata too complex and difficult to follow. She had firm faith in Lord Rama, Gahanagar Baba (Nag Devta of the local serpent shrine in Faizabad) and other local village deities. I hardly saw her worshipping or going to temples other than occasionally with family members. She disliked going to Hanuman Garhi for the number of stairs one had to climb. “Vanar is always a Vanar, perched up like on a tall tree!” she said. For her, taking names of her beloved deities would suffice.

Although she knew that she was Hindu, I am sure that she had no conception of “religion”, let alone of religious conversion. She knew “Musalmans” worshipped in a different manner and that one must avoid old city and mosque areas on Jum’a (Fridays) because “Muslims are quarrelsome that day” (according to her). No menace or hatred, just a matter of fact for her!

In fact, we never heard anything bad about the religious belief of Muslims. My granny described an Isaai (Christian) family thus: “The bhaiyas are neither Hindu nor Muslim!” She knew of “Janmasthanwali masjid” (the colloquial phrase will horrify many), but her memory of darshan (sight) of Ram Lalla — the makeshift deity of Lord Rama placed at the disputed site in Ayodhya after the Babri structure’s demolition ― was more of bewilderment than any anti-Muslim feeling.

It was of a long winding walk, security guards, lack of a joyous atmosphere with people being asked to move on as soon as they reached in front of the deity. She never noticed the simple tent structure or lack of a bhavya mandir (grand temple). She talked about her younger days when the whole neighbourhood would go for 14-kosi or a shorter Panchkosi parikrama ― a kos is an Indian unit of length measuring 1.8 km ― of “Sri Ayodhya”. She remembered the singing, cooking food on the way, bathing in Sarjuji (Saryu) and darshan at Nageshwarnath.

My granny was uneducated, but she knew her numbers well and deftly managed the affairs of the large joint family in the city and macro agricultural concerns back at village. She moved between urban and rural locales with remarkable alacrity unlike today’s generation. And she travelled alone. She talked about Kanpur, Calcutta and Rangoon from where so many had to run away leaving behind their wealth and property. And she had an unending treasure trove of stories, folk stories, of devas (gods), of Puranas, many of them so different that we always had a fight that it was not in the “text”. She never bothered. Her faith was her own and she was never concerned with sharing it even with her children whose religious beliefs were quite different from hers. Some were agnostic while my mother worshipped Shiva-Shakti.

When her memory failed, my granny only occasionally remembered her children from breastfeeding days, but she still remembered her deities clearly. And she remembered the songs. Sitting in her chair, knowing not where she is, in that timeless void she sang of marriage of Ram and Sita. In her version, Hanuman too was present in the marriage, perched up on a high tree! After several such months, when even medicines were of little help, we decided to call a Pandit for Gita path (reading of the holy book) in her room. She died in her sleep the very next day. Elders said that her atma (soul), which was trapped in some bondage of moha (attachment with worldly affairs), was finally liberated. But she knew no Sanskrit nor did she worship Krishna ― that “naughty son of Yashoda”.

I shared this anecdote because this is how most Hindus live their religious life, which is very personal, which is not centred around a book or rigid laws. An average Hindu believes in several deities and shares an easy, playful relationship with them. They are not the people of “the book”. And this is exactly why they are looked down upon and their belief system seen as pagan ― hence illicit.

The outrage over conversion to Hinduism is rooted in Hinduphobia. And it is astonishing that Hinduphobia is so deeply ingrained in the public discourse and our thinking that no one even calls it out by name! This Hinduphobia stems from the hatred of paganism by Abrahamic religions whose vocabulary and conception of religion have come to dominate the world and even the thinking of modern Hindus. According to the worldview based on such concepts, Hindus ― like my old granny ― need to be rescued. Abrahamists want to save them from false gods and demon worship by destroying their belief systems and replacing it by “One, True God”, jealous and exclusivist.

And the ‘plural’ and ‘progressive’ gentry wants to rescue them from their superstitious beliefs, from idolatry and weird chaotic customs and rituals and usher them in a ‘sanitised’, ‘rational‘ belief that somewhat resembles Abrahamic monotheistic constructs. After all, even our textbooks talk about the social evils like “dowry, untouchability, idolatry, child marriage, polytheism etc” (take note of the aspects that are particularly religious in nature).

It is to be noted that this is a new phenomenon. Hindu acquaintance with Abrahamic monotheism is quite old, beginning with the encounter with forces of Islamic imperialism. But Hindus were never apologetic about their deities or beliefs in several devatas (gods). They never buckled under the demonisation of idol worship. On the contrary, Hindus initiated a remarkable religious renaissance under Muslim rule centred around the very deities and “murti puja”. Despite all glorification of nirguna bhakti (belief in formless God, thanks to the anxiety of ‘tolerant‘ Hindus), it was the saguna bhakti (worshipping a manifestation of God) that was the force to reckon with. It was saguna bhakti or ‘idol worship‘ of popular deities that ensured the survival of Hindu beliefs under Islamic persecution.

It was these very ‘chaotic, meaningless‘ rituals, parikarmas which preserved Hinduism. It was songs in colloquial languages that educated modern Hindus don’t understand and scoff upon as dehati (rustic) ballads that preserved the Hindu sacred lore and refined them by telling and re-telling them.

But something changed in the last 200 years or so. Faced with the unprecedented challenge of Christianity backed by western colonialism and modern industrial progress, Hindus began to re-model their beliefs in the image of Abrahamic monotheism. They were too much in the awe of Western progress, attributing it to, among other things, the ‘rational monotheistic’ uniform religion followed in the West. Polytheism was denounced, Murti puja was demonised. No more ‘reckless’ singing and dancing, but now Hindus should sit quietly and mediate on the formless God! Hindu myths and legends were to be rationalised and historically verified while no questions were put to the historicity of Moses, Jesus etc. And feeble attempts were made to prove that Hindus too believe in that ‘One God’ even though the plea “Hinduism is monotheistic too” was dismissed by monotheists with the contempt it deserved.

But the damage was done. It is to be noted that the ‘myths’, ‘superstitions’ and forms of worships most hated by the Abrahamists  are mostly traditions and customs of Dalits and tribal people. As we move out of the modern Hindu discourse dominated by the language of Advaita Vedanta and towards popular Hinduism as practiced by the masses, we see more of such diverse practices, nature worship and shamanism. Literally thousands of deities prop up, worshipped by local communities in their respective unique ways. In short, we move towards the tribal roots of Hinduism, which grew out of the amalgamation of practices and sacred-lores of various indigenous tribes in the subcontinent. But now they are told that their beliefs and practices are just some clever devious construct of ‘invading Aryan’ Brahmins to keep them subjugated. And that they must abandoned them!

In a single stroke, the whole Dalit-Bahujan Samaj is robbed of its culture, ingenuity, history and spirituality, and de-humanised as people lacking agency who must be ‘rescued’. That is why there is a consensus on missionary activities of Christianity and Islam being legitimate, if not outright desired. Any reverse movement is to be condemned and prevented. In such instances, the very idea of India is threatened.

But what is this idea and who decided it?

Throughout the period of Congress rule when this ‘Idea of India’ reigned supreme, Dalits and other lower castes were not even allowed to reach the polling booths during elections. The Congress, and other camp followers including communists, ruled by alliance with local dominant castes that would ensure booth capturing; Dalits either didn’t vote or they voted whom they were told to. It is only now with increasing democratisation and social empowerment that the subaltern are voting as they choose. And it is no wonder that they are voting against the ‘Idea of India’.

But now they are denounced as Brahminised or as ‘Hindutva footsoldiers’. Such is the contempt with which this narrative holds them in that it even refuses to acknowledge their agency and that they too are rational actors capable of making individual and social choices.

In this narrative, Dalits, tribal people and others are to be left undefended for the hunt by multi-billion dollar evangelical organisations operating with a multi-national corporate structure. Interestingly, many peddlers of this narrative are otherwise opposed to MNCs and the Indian corporate sector. When tribals are decimated in Assam, tribal belief-systems are bulldozed and churches are planted by every means possible in the Northeast or central India, when Hindu religious leaders are murdered by Maoists, waging ‘people’s war’ with the support of Christian missionaries, when Dalits are religiously persecuted in Kanth, champions of ‘pluralism’ and the subalterns look the other way.

Instead of listening to the cries of despair of the marginalised sections being crushed under the Abrahamic aggression, they occupy themselves with writing convoluted books on “Can Subalterns Speak?” It is time for the masses to stop taking them seriously; it’s the masses who must set the agenda. They must preserve their beliefs and propagate them, if they want to, without being apologetic about it.

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