Hindutva Vs Ambedkarism:Views On Conversions

Economic & Political Weekly
October 7-13, 2000
Ambrose Pinto

With the Sangh parivar forces communalising the whole discourse on conversions, there has not been an attempt to look at the entire debate on conversions from the perspective of the subalterns. There are questions asked, objections raised and propaganda carried on against the minuscule Christian minority community that the community is aggressively involved in acts of proselytisation through bribery, coercion, force and inducements.

A community that was 2.7 per cent according to the census of 1981 has declined to 2.4 per cent. This is the government statistics. If people doubt it, then one has to doubt the state itself. The simple query then is, if the Christian population has declined, what has happened to those large-scale conversions Sangh parivar is talking about? Whether people can be bribed or induced to accept another religion is also a question worth examining. Politicians try to bribe people especially the poor, during elections. Do people vote for individuals and parties because they have been bribed or provided with liquor? If ordinary people cannot be bought by politicians in spite of large bundles of currency notes, how would Christianity induce or bribe? The dominant caste groups have always undermined the abilities of the poor to make their own decisions.

The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the discourse on conversions by the forces of hindutva, and the Ambedkarites, basically a dominant perspective vs a subaltern view. While the hindutva arguments are the arguments of the dominant elite, Ambedkar represents the marginalised lot. It is a pity that the Ambedkar perspective on conversions has not been sufficiently examined all through the debate on the issue. The hindutvavadis of course have been averse to Ambedkarism. Prior to delving into Ambedkarite arguments for conversion let us first look at the various arguments against conversion by the Hindu right.

Proselytisation and Hindu Right

In spite of Article 25 of the Constitution which clearly lays down "freedom of conscience and free profession and propagation of religion", to the right-wing chauvinists conversion is anathema. Even the more progressive sections, Gandhians and at times even socialists seem to be uncomfortable with Article 25. The criticism is focused on the methods of conversion. It is held that missionaries and Christians utilise large amounts of funds to convert the poor to Christianity. Whether it is right or wrong is not the core issue. The Sangh parivar has even justified violence to the Christian community on the pretext that Christians and missionaries are converting Hindus. There are five arguments put forth by opponents of conversion:

(a) India is Hindu and the country has a Hindu heritage which is a part of the national culture. To convert therefore is against the national Hindu identity. The BJP's slogan therefore is "one nation one culture and one people".

(b) All those who are born in this country must have a sense of belonging to the country. And such a sense of belonging or patriotism is a quality of Hindus. If one drifts from Hinduism, then he or she cannot remain patriotic.

(c) Those who convert normally join Islam or Christianity. Both these are foreign religions. Since their sacred places are outside the country, they have no loyalty to the land. Their loyalties are extra-territorial.

(d) All religions are equal, why then resort to conversions?

(e) Conversions take place due to inducement, coercion or compulsion. Therefore, they need to be banned since they are not genuine.

One could easily respond to each one of these allegations. However, at this point a brief rejoinder is sufficient. To hold India as Hindu and the Indian identity as Hindu is to negate the entire ideology of pluralism. In fact, with the emergence of the Hindu right, pluralism has been under attack. While no one denies that citizens have to be loyal to the country, the question is about the kind of loyalty expected by hindutvavadis and the rightists. If burning of SCs/STs, discrimination on the basis of caste against BCs and hatred towards minorities is considered a sign of loyalty to national culture and heritage, one needs to redefine loyalty in terms of concern for the poor, compassion for the suffering and integrity and rectitude. None of these social qualities is highlighted by the Hindu right as loyalty. For Ambedkar, the hindutvavadis never had these. Large sections of our hawala dealers, anti-social persons, corrupt personnel, people in bureaucratic scandals, political crimes, murderers and breakers of every kind of law have been from the majority community. It merely means there are loyal and disloyal citizens in every community.

Not all people accept that all religions are the same. It is worth here to turn to the arguments of Ambedkar:

Religions are not alike in their answers to the question 'what is good'. One religion holds that brotherhood is good, another caste and untouchability is good...Are all religions agreed in the means and methods they advocate for the promotion and spread of good?...Are they not religions which advocate violence? Given these facts how can it be said that all religions are the same and there is no reason to prefer one to the other (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol V, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1989, pp 405-06).

The final argument is that conversions are due to inducement, coercion or compulsion. History no doubt has recorded cases when conversions have taken place as a result of compulsion or deceit. But to term all conversions as a result of inducements, appeasements, fraud and deceit is to insult the capacity of the people to choose. If people are able to make choices about the kind of clothes they wear, the person they marry, the party they vote for commodities they consume and other areas of life, they are also capable of deciding their faith.

The problem with the Hindu right is their understanding on the purpose of religion. Religion is not a personal commodity to be merely centred on cults, rites, usages, observances, rituals, beliefs and dogmas. It is more social. For Ambedkar, religion is a social fact that has a specific social purpose and a definite social function. Looking at hinduism from the perspective of the untouchables Ambedkar raised a few questions:

Does Hinduism recognise their worth as human beings? Does it stand for their equality? Does it at least help to forge the bond of fraternity between them and the Hindus? Does it teach the Hindus that the untouchables are their kindred? Does it say to Hindus that it is a sin to treat the untouchables as being neither man nor beast? Does it tell the Hindus to be righteous to the untouchables? Does it preach to the Hindus to be just and human to them? Does it inculcate upon the Hindus the virtue of being friendly to them? Does it tell the Hindus to love them, or respect them and to do them no wrong? In fine, does Hinduism universalise the value of life without distinction? (ibid: 411-12).

The important thing to realise is that religion goes beyond personal belief and observance to the social realm. In fact, while no hindutvavadi can give an affirmative answer to the questions of Ambedkar, one may conclude that these abuses and hate heaped on the dalits is on account of the hinduism advocated by the forces of the parivar.

Ambedkar had said: "The spirit and tradition which makes lawful the lawlessness of the Hindus towards the untouchables is founded and supported by the teachings of hinduism?" (ibid: 412). And that is why Ambedkar raises the following questions: "How can the Hindus ask the untouchables to accept hinduism and stay in hinduism? Why should the untouchables adhere to hinduism which is solely responsible for their degradation?" Ambedkar proceeds further and says "To be poor is bad but no so bad as to be an untouchable...In hinduism there is no hope for the untouchables. Untouchability is a part of hinduism... What does it mean for an untouchable to say that he believes in hinduism? It means that he accepts that he is an untouchable and that he is an untouchable is the result of divine dispensation...That hinduism is inconsistent with the self-respect and honour of the untouchables is the strongest ground which justified the conversion of the untouchables to another and nobler faith"! (ibid: 413).

For Ambedkar and his followers therefore conversion is not for economic or political gain. It is a device of protest to gain social acceptance. Socially the untouchables will gain absolutely and immensely, Ambedkar felt, because "the untouchables will be members of a community whose religion has universalised and equalised all values of life" (ibid: 413).

Isolation means social segregation, humiliation, discrimination and injustice. Kinship is the way of enlisting the support of the kindred community to meet the tyrannies and oppression by the Hindus which the untouchables have to bear as long as they remain in the Hindu fold? By joining a non-Hindu community that does not believe in caste, Ambedkar holds, liberation of untouchables is possible.

Bond of kinship in a community is the consequence of allegiance to a common religion. Kinship is developed through eating and drinking together. Because the new religion upholds equality, it will also gradually free the untouchables from inferiority complex. The sense of inferiority of the untouchables is the result of discrimination and hostility. Once he is out of the religion of injustice, he will slowly assert his identity. As far as Ambedkar was concerned, he strongly held that conversions would raise the social status of the untouchables. What is essential is that while the untouchable chooses a new religion, he also takes on a new name. A new name besides, being a denunciation of hinduism, changes the outlook of the individual. Conversion therefore can solve the problem of untouchability.

Is Hinduism a Missionary Religion?

There have been many controversies on whether hinduism is a proselytising religion. A person is a Hindu by birth and cannot be by conversion. That is why Max Muller held that Hindu religion is a non-missionary religion. But on the other hand scholars, are aware of the spread of Hindu religion among the indigenous people of the country. Hinduism has also spread to other countries. Without being a missionary faith, it could not have spread. Though the organisation of Hindu society is characterised by the existence of castes and caste is incompatible with conversion, because of the power of cooption and assimilation, hinduism has won many converts. The 'shuddhi' movement or 'ghar vapasi' (return home) initiated among tribals is to convert people who were never Hindus. The purpose of shuddhi movement is to increase the strength of the Hindu community but the weakness of shuddhi movement will be its destruction. By adding more and more SCs/STs to its numbers, Hindu society cannot i! ncrease solidarity. The tribals and dalits will have to live isolated lives and gradually once awareness of caste dawns, they will move out of hinduism. That is why for Ambedkar what is essential if hinduism wants to change is annihilation of caste. That hindutvavadis are reluctant. In fact, with the hindutva wave, caste is strengthened rather than weakened. The truth is for Ambedkar there is no hinduism if there is no caste system.

Gandhi, Ambedkar and Conversions

Gandhi was averse to conversions specially to Christianity. Already in 1928 at a meeting of the International Fellowship, a body for promoting fellow feeling among persons of different faiths, Gandhi had said, "In joining the fellowship, if there was the slightest wish or even the slightest thought at the back of the mind, to influence or convert, any other member of the Fellowship, then the spirit of the movement could be destroyed. Any one who had such a wish ought to leave the Fellowship" (ibid: 445). Gandhi's position is similar to the position of the Sangh parivar forces. He objected to the missionaries spreading the Christian gospel among the untouchables. Ambedkar sums up Gandhi's position against conversion of untouchables in four propositions.

(a) All religions are equal and hence conversion is not right.
(b) Missionaries should live Christian lives and be witnesses and not convert.
(c) The social work of the missions is to convert the beneficiaries to Christianity.
(d) Vast masses of dalits cannot understand Christianity. They have no mind, no intelligence, no sense of difference between god and no god (ibid: 449).

Gandhi wanted missionaries to withdraw from the indecent competition to convert the dalits. However, the same Gandhi did not express his opposition to conversion to Islam. Islam made no secret of their plan to convert the untouchables. The reason according to Ambedkar is that the Muslims numbered 75 million and Christians were only 6 million. It was worthwhile making peace with Muslims because they could make themselves a thorn in the side. Christians do not count because they are small in number. The strategy is the same with the forces of Sangh parivar.

It is not only for the Christians that Gandhi had no respect, but also for dalits. He had termed the untouchable as "no better than cows". Ambedkar on the other hand did not buy Gandhi's objections to Christianity. Ambedkar said "it is difficult to understand why Gandhi argues that services rendered by the missionaries are baits or temptations and that the conversions are therefore conversions of convenience. Why is it not possible to believe that these services by missionaries indicate that service to suffering humanity is for Christians an essential requirement of their religion? Would that be a wrong view of the process by which a person is drawn towards Christianity? Only a prejudiced mind would say, yes...Whatever anybody may say, I have no doubt, all the untouchables, whether they are converts or not will agree that Gandhi has been grossly unjust to Christian missions" (ibid: 450).

Paying a tribute to the work of the missionaries Ambedkar asked: "What have the Hindus to show as against this?...Service to humanity is quite foreign to Hinduism and to Hindus. The Hindu religion consists primarily, of rituals and observances. It is a religion of temples. Love of man has no place in it. And without love of man how can service to man be inspired?" (ibid: 451).

Ambedkar then examines how caste has come to influence doctors in the ministration of the sick in the Hindu community. He concludes "comparatively speaking, the achievement of Christian missions in the field of social service are very great. Of that no one except a determined opponent of everything Christian can have any doubt" (ibid: 452).

Ambedkar's only regret was that the services of the Christian missions, educational institutions and hospitals primarily meant to serve the poor in terms of the teaching of the founder of that religion mostly benefited the high caste Hindus. The Indian Christians, most of whom are converts from the class of untouchables, are either too poor or too devoid of ambition. Though the object of these services is to provide an occasion for contact between Christian missionaries and high caste Hindus, Ambedkar was of the opinion that it is not possible to convert them to Christianity.

While appreciative of the Christian message in essence, Ambedkar was quite critical of the inability of Christianity in changing the mentality of the converts: "But the fact remains that Christianity has not succeeded in dissolving the feeling of caste from among the converts to Christianity. There is no gainsaying the fact that caste governs the life of the Christians as much as it does the life of the Hindus. There are brahmin Christians and non-brahmin Christians. They are as much caste ridden as the Hindus are" (ibid: 456).

Though caste continues in Christianity, it is of far lower intensity. The converts do attend church services and benefit from the church's other services. What is important is to realise that the church in India is not an artificial construction but an institution that is constructed from Indian society. As long as caste exists in Indian society, caste would continue among worshippers of all religions. The more important question is how to provide social acceptance, positive self-image and equality to converts by denouncing caste and propagating equality. It is a fact that converts, as they move into the real inspiration of the faith by the third or fourth generation, 'feel' caste less and less and are more and more egalitarian.

Christians as Targets of Hindu Right

The reasons for Christians as targets of Hindu right are not far to see. Ambedkar had already predicted it.

I want them [Christians] to be strong because I see great dangers for them ahead. They have to reckon with the scarcely veiled hostility of Gandhi to Christianity taking its roots in the Indian social structure. But they have also to reckon with militant Hinduism masquerading as Indian Nationalism. What this militant Hinduism will do to Christians and Christianity can be seen from what happened at Brindavan very recently. If newspaper reports are true a crowd of mild Hinduism quietly went and burned down the mission buildings in Brindavan and warned the missionary that if they rebuild it they would come and burn it down again? This may be the solitary instance of misguided patriots or this may be just a piece of what the Hindus are planning to get rid of Christians and Christianity. If it is the shadow of events to come then Indian Christians must be prepared to meet these.

How prophetic Ambedkar was. "A close scrutiny of the writings of the early protagonists of hindutva (Savarkar, Hedgewar) the recent 'quit India' order on several of the missionaries in Maharashtra, the slogan and campaign to make Banswara district of south Rajasthan, 'Christian-free by the year 2000' the inclusion of Christians among the 'foreigners' in class 9 Social Studies textbooks in Gujarat and what has been accomplished in Dangs to exterminate Christianity from the district point to one thing, the sponsors and promoters of hindutva reject Christianity totally" (T K John, Vidyajyothi: Journal of Theological Reflection, Vol 64, No 1, January 2000, page 29). The developments in Uttar Pradesh with atrocities on religious personnel, institutions and new rules and regulations to control Christian educational endeavours point in the same direction.

And why do they reject Christianity and want to get rid of it? Sumit Sarkar has an answer: "Today, particularly, the churches have been changing in quite striking ways above all through the spread of liberation theologies, that have contributed substantially to many movements for radical change in Latin America and elsewhere. Christian groups have been prominent in many anti-war and anti-nuclear protests and numerous other undeniably progressive initiatives" (EPW, June 26, 1999, p 1698). Chinna Rao a dalit researcher writing in the Frontier (April 9-15, 2000, p 6) adds: "Christian missionaries have been the harbingers of modernisation to the dalits and no insane cry will ever demolish the vital fact. They were the first dalit educators at a time when dalits were excluded from development. Christianity has not been enemical to the dalit cause at all. In fact, it is the intervention of the church that has empowered the dalits". In recent years due to a shift in their understandi! ng, churches have been working more and more with movements, liberation groups, primary education centres and in building awareness among the marginalised.


Is there a fear among hindutvavadis that hinduism is disintegrating? The process had begun right at the formation of the republic when SCs/STs, minorities and OBCs were protected by special provisions in the Constitution. When the untouchables specially came to occupy position of power, the dominant caste group already felt threatened. The mandalisation process was the climax when the Hindu community was sharply divided into backwards and forwards. The mandir episode was meant to unite all Hindus under one banner and thus wrest power from SCs/STs and OBCs. It was aimed at establishing an upper caste hegemony. Ayodhya is no longer yielding the fruit it once did. The project needs new enemies, Christians have been targeted because of their work among the marginalised. The fear is that the marginalised as a result of missionary education and services would be so empowered that SCs/STs/OBCs may not accept to do the biddings of their caste masters. Christianity has a subversive ide! ology. It is this ideology of providing equality to the marginalised that is under attack by the parivar forces in the name of opposition to conversion. That is why schools and social centres in the service of the tribals of Dangs, lepers and dalits of Orissa and social centres building awareness have been targeted. The idea is to resist the rise of dalits, tribals, OBCs and the like. There are a number of other factors that have contributed to the assertion of subalterns. Christianity may have been one factor. But the fears among the hindutvavadis is real. The caste hegemony is threatened. The lower castes and classes are making legitimate demands. To escape the major issues confronting the country and to consolidate Hindu votebanks 'Christians' are the new enemies. How long will this game pay?

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