Conversion Controversies - By N. Kunju
One of the threats faced by Hindus is supposed to be conversion that could reduce their numbers and increase the population of other religions. The conversion to indigenous religions does not matter because the converted remain more or less in the Hindu cultural mould. The occasional ritual conversions of Dalits to Buddhism are more out of political vendetta than due to a genuine change of mind or ideological differences. The follower of Buddha, Mahavira or Guru Nanak could remain a Hindu without any hindrance or opposition from Hinduism. When Dr. Ambedkar converted Dalits en masse to Buddhism, it was a symbolic political protest; he knew neither their status nor outlook radically changed.
In fact, the fear of the reduction of Hindu population due to conversion is unfounded. The proportional increase in the number of Muslims is not due to conversion to Islam. Conversion to Islam had taken place mostly by force; there is no scope for forceful conversion in free India. The increase in Muslim numbers is due to backwardness and unchecked breeding The Sachar Commission has rightly given the statistics to prove the fact. But the Government's remedy to overcome their backwardness by reservation and special concessions is wrong because unlike the Hindu backward castes, Muslim have not suffered any social historical oppression or lack of opportunities.
In fact, historically Muslims had been pampered for the past 1000 years, first during Islamic rule and later by the British regime. Muslim rulers openly discriminated against Hindus even levying special taxes on them and favoured Muslims by giving them high posts in the hierarchy of the administration. It was during their rule Muslims grew from zero to the sizeable population in India, so much so, they could ask for a separate state at the time of independence.
The British had a love-hate relationship with the Muslims. It was hate at the time when the Muslims were rulers and in the transition period to British rule. This was because they had to fight the Muslims to gain power and the 1857 mutiny was at least notionally led by the Mughal "Emperor", Bahadur Shah Zafar.
The British should be given the credit for not going out with the sword to convert Hindus to Christianity as the Muslims had done. Mostly they kept political power and proselytizing agenda separate. The latter, they left to the Christian missionaries. Therefore very little conversion took place in the North except in tribal pockets where indigenous faiths were of a primitive nature.
The story of conversion from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam in the South was different. This has mostly happened before the British came. The story of St. Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, coming to Kerala is more fable than fact. But the Portuguese, the Dutch and German missionaries and before them the Syrian and other Eastern churches had established on the Western coast. Some of the high caste Hindus had embraced Christianity because of the influence of the missionaries. Today the Syrian Christians of Kerala take more pride in saying their ancestors were Brahmins than they are the followers of Christ!
Kerala Muslims too, except those forcibly converted during Tipu Sultan's invasion, are of Arab origin. The Arabs came for business in spices and exquisite cloth and they settled and intermarried with the locals. At that time, the Hindus were reluctant to go abroad because of superstitious beliefs and the ruler of Malabar, the Samoothiri (Zamorin) had asked some of his soldiers to convert to Islam so that he could have a navy. And he did have a strong naval force under the command of Kunjali Marakkar who fought the European fleet and won wars on the waters. The Indian Navy has honoured his memory by naming one of its important establishments INS KUNJALI.
The Hindu traditional oppression of the low castes too contributed to the conversion into Christianity and Islam. Why should a man remain an untouchable serf (almost a slave) when another religion promised him to make him a brother? The promise of course mostly proved false; Christian and Muslim orthodoxy never accepted the low-caste converts as equals. But the enticement worked and many low caste Hindus were lured by the two religions. Today those who were converted from low castes are demanding their rights of reservation and other concessions as applicable to the Hindu backward castes. So much for the brotherhood promised by Christianity and Islam!
But it should be conceded that the Christian missionaries had done commendable work in the field of education. Unlike Hindu orthodoxy that exhibited its prosperity by building magnificent temples, the Christians built temples of learning. They might have had the ulterior motive of winning over Hindus, but there was no compulsion. And many Hindus who studied in Christian institutions didn't convert, though they acquired an admiration to Christian modernity. Of course, the missionaries did lure the low castes by special favours to them if they got converted. It is a fact that brilliant boys from backward castes benefited, had higher education and got high jobs and got out of the social stigma.
There is the interesting story narrated to the Indian Express by India's first Dalit Chief Justice Konakuppakkattil Gopinathan Balakrishnan about his father: ...Gopinathan was not one to take the socially assigned Dalit route. Yearning to go to school, Gopinathan was told that Dalits were not particularly welcome in most local government schools. Christian missionaries ran the remaining schools and Christians were preferred. So he changed his name to a Christian one, Kunhachan Marcos, and managed to get into a school run by the Church of South India. Borrowing books from classmates, often going without food, Marcos passed his final school examination - but no one gave him a job. Years later Marcos finally went through 'purification' rite and reverted to his old self, as Gopinathan. It was even later that he managed to get a lowly job of a copyist in the court... (Indian Express Dec. 25, '06).
However, after conversion to Christianity, very few Hindus underwent Sudhi to return to the Hindu fold like Gopinathan. It was not because of any threat from the Christian community, but the beneficiaries of conversion reconciled to the new environment and they did not have the ideological mooring in the Hindu culture for returning to Hinduism.
The case of those who were forcibly converted to Islam was different. Most of them were from the high castes and they cherished the Hindu ethos and culture, but were prevented from a 'come-back' both by the Muslim and the Hindu orthodoxy. To the Muslim, abandoning Allah and Prophet Mohamed was blasphemy, and the punishment for blasphemy was death. So a converted Muslim can go back to his original religion only at the risk of his life. Even if he overcame the Islamic threat, the Hindu orthodoxy would not take him back. To them he is permanently impure and can't be purified.
Interestingly, the only instance of converted Muslims undergoing Shudhi and rejoining the Hindu fold in their original caste too has happened in Kerala. They were the Nairs converted forcibly by Tipu Sultan's hordes in Malabar. These converts abandoned Islam after the death of Tipu in the battle at Srirangapatam with the British. But they were not fully accepted by the upper castes and were rebuked as Chelat (circumcised) Nairs and were considered outcastes by Brahmins and fellow Nairs. (The ritual of conversion to Islam was circumcision, cutting off the foreskin.) A bold social reformer, Chandu Nambiar, worked hard to break the barrier to integrate Chelat Nairs into the Hindu Nair mainstream and succeeded in removing the stigma. (Joseph Edamaruku in his Malayalam book "Ivar Mathanishedhikal")
Surprisingly, according to the Koran Sunnath Society founded by the noted Islamic theologian of Kerala, Chekanur Maulavi, circumcision has no place in Islam. Majid Cheruvati, the secretary of the Society writes: What is done in the name of religion is a punishment to the boys. At an age when they know nothing about religion, the boys are subjected to physical and mental torture. Nowhere in the Holy Koran this ritual is mentioned... (Keralasabdam weekly 9-11-06).
The intolerant Islamic fundamentalists who were enraged by the views of Chekanur Maulavi got him murdered. The CBI is still investigating the murder case. Now circumcision becomes useful for Islamic terrorists to separate men whom they suspect to be Hindus from a mixed crowd.
Coming back to conversion from circumcision, in the anti-conversion law enacted by some states the condition of inducement for changing religion is meaningless. No one will allow himself to be converted without gaining anything. It could be either material gain or promises of gains by the grace of another god. Both ways, conversion is undesirable and could only help in social tensions.
However, the scare that Hindus will become a minority because of conversion to other religions is unfounded. Christians who are accused of converting Hindus could not do much to increase their numbers; there is no increase in their percentage of the total population of free India. Muslims do register an increase, but that is not because of conversion from Hindus. The reason is unchecked proliferation due to illiteracy and backwardness. Irrespective of their religion, the prospering middle class in India has adopted the policy of limiting their family for their own well-being.
The policy of competitive population increase by Hindus by having more children is not advisable; it may take India to the first position in the world in strength of numbers surpassing China. But it will make India weaker and poorer as a nation.
N. Kunju is a National Council member of Indian Rationalist Association