A View from India: Love, Faith and Conversions

With the romanticized temper of the 100 days of Narendra Modi government over, the anti-Muslim tone is heard throughout India; in fact, this constitutes a major strand in the bond by which the Hindutva forces feel united after the triumphant majority to the Indian parliament, says one analyst.

Posted on 09/17/14
By Mushirul Hasan | Via The Hindu
 Members of Dalit community at a gathering demanding land reforms in India. (Photo by ActionAid India - Campaigns, Creative Commons License)

Members of Dalit community at a gathering demanding land reforms in India. (Photo by ActionAid India – Campaigns, Creative Commons License)

“If a modern Diogenes were to hunt out for Indians with his lantern,” wrote Syed Abdullah Brelvi, editor of the once renowned Bombay Chronicle, “he would be sure to come across fervid Hindus, bigoted Muslims and fanatical souls deeply engrossed with the problem of tirelessly finding out how unjustly their own particular community was being treated, and we would have to ask in sorrow: ‘Where are the Indians!’” Today, this observation is as relevant as it was in 1926. Last week the noted jurist, Fali S. Nariman, reminded us of the diminishing value of tolerance in society. He was the speaker at the annual lecture organised by the National Commission for Minorities in New Delhi.


If one wishes to get an idea of the bitterness animating Hindus and Muslims in Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, there is no better way than to access the polemical literature, or to scrutinize what is taught to students in schools and colleges. One must not expect in them any comprehensive views of the significance of our composite culture, but they are a startling revelation of the suspicion tinged with hatred for the religious minorities. Yet, there is nothing in the comments of our “secular” leadership that expresses the profound moral distress into which these developments threw Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Sections of the westernised intelligentsia deplore; but the same sections execute a volte face and condone the bellicose speeches of the Togadias and the Avaidyanaths. Such is the level of opportunism that they have become impervious to criticism or argument.


Us and them

Mr. Rajnath Singh, the Home Minister, does, it is true, shake his head over the religious rhetoric around “Love-jihad,” but the concentrated venom of the Hindutva forces is echoed time and time again. With the romanticized temper of the 100 days of the Modi government over, the anti-Muslim tone is heard throughout; in fact, this constitutes a major strand in the bond by which the Hindutva forces feel united after the triumphant majority to the Lok Sabha. Indeed, there is a school of thought in our country, nowadays, vocal, animated by the consciousness of having a significant message to pass, according to which forced conversions have been an important part of the great Islamic enterprise in the subcontinent. It could not be thwarted then, but it must be stopped under the present “Hindu” dispensation.


The fact of the matter is that conversion has been a contentious and emotive issue between the followers of different religions. It came about in different circumstances, in different ways, and with different outcomes. B.R. Ambedkar became one of only two social leaders in Maharashtra who resorted to conversion as a form of protest against the iniquities of the Hindu caste society, the other being Pandita Ramabai Saraswati.


Passage of conversion

The converts for their part changed their religion through various means and for a variety of reasons. Some accepted their new religion after studying for a long time; others were inspired to do so by the shuddhi sabhas or the tanzim bodies. Historians have been debating this, with diametrically opposed arguments suited to each other’s particular case. The politicians and the journalists deal mostly in generalities, but not Mahatma Gandhi whose world view was based on compromise, equilibrium, and tolerance. What dominates his work is this conception, or let me rather say, this state of mind. He shared the ideal, so characteristically Gandhian, of swaraj through spiritual enlightenment and a pluralist way of life. Let me, therefore confine myself to his views which bring out the main points with admirable lucidity.


To begin with, Gandhi eschewed the demonization of the medieval Indian rulers for their proselytizing fervor. Instead, he desired to raise the standing of Muslims in the eyes of Hindus and to foster a greater understanding of Christians by Hindus. He downplayed injuries to his co-religionists, and emphasized, instead, the sufferings of Muslims at each other’s hands as well as from outside enemies such as Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. He wanted readers to appreciate Islam’s fine qualities, and delivered a long panegyric so gushing that it would make a present-day writer blush.


Between adopting and enticing

Gandhi recognized political and religious diversities, borrowed ideas from Islam and Muslim thinkers, and reiterated his belief that houses need not be walled on all sides and windows need not be stuffed. He kept the requirements in balance, a goal that meshed well with his own style and ideals. He portrayed Islam as a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and established that neither the strict conditions for jihad could be fulfilled nor the charge of conversion by force be substantiated against Muslims as a body. Even after years of heated debates and polemical controversies, he did not find a single passage in condoning forced conversion; “real conversion proceeded from the heart and a heart conversion was impossible without an intelligent grasp of one’s faith and of that recommended by adoption.” According to him, Islam spread by the prayerful love of an unbroken line of saints and faqirs; the life of the Prophet was itself a refutation of compulsion in religion.


This is very fine as far as it goes. But it did not mean that Gandhi approved of conversion. Henry Whitehead, Gandhi’s host in Madras in February 1916, remarked: “He represents in rather an extreme form the modern reaction against western influences and western civilization in India, and naturally he is opposed to all proselytizing on the part of the missionary.” He was angry and hurt to find Christian bodies vying with Muslims and Sikhs in trying to add to their numbers, and complained that the missionaries were engaged in weaning ignorant people away from the religion of their forefathers. They engaged in such activities not because the untouchables were suddenly awakened by spiritual hunger, but because the missionaries exploited their backwardness and offered visions of “liberation.” “It is one thing to preach one’s religion to whomsoever may chose to adopt it, another to entice the masses,” Gandhi told an American missionary in December 1939.


Widely as the leaders of the freedom struggle differed among themselves in their interpretation of conversion, Gandhi brought out certain aspects and meanings that seemed to point to his own particular moral code. He did not reject conversion, but disapproved of the change of religion by force or inducements. This is a fairly balanced position. Therefore, Gandhi’s heart repelled against the Mahars being converted to Buddhism, or his son’s conversion to Islam.


Most people agree with Gandhi that religion isn’t like a house of cards or a cloak to be changed at will. Moreover, no society, Indian or European, can alter its religious identity simply because it has a sword at its neck. At least, attempts have been made to question, as the historian Richard Eaton does, the Religion of the Sword thesis, to explain the growth of Islam in India.


In today’s context, proselytization is no more than an isolated activity of the Christian missionaries or the Tablighi Jamaat, a quiescent body. Even if it is not, it should be avoided in the interest of communal harmony. Adding a hundred or two hundred Muslims or Hindus to the faith brings no strength or solace to any community.


Widening the gulf

My point is this: The spirit animating the “love-jihad” campaign is to oppose the liberal and secular tendencies in society. At first sight this kind of belligerence seems almost incompatible with the Prime Minister’s development goals, but his faithful adherents justify their high-handedness by inventing an issue almost every other day to widen the Hindu-Muslim gulf. With their images of fear and persecution, they present Hinduism as closed and self-contained. They represent Muslims as bad, in spite of the Hindus.


The shadow of the extremists has intensified religious consciousness in a number of States. There is little safety in the towns of western Uttar Pradesh, few rights, no public opinion. Sadly, simple souls among Dalits have been led astray. They are blind to the fact that they were being used in preparation of the State Assembly elections.


One can understand the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) exultation when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was overthrown and Mr Narendra Modi’s government formed. But quite a few ominous developments have taken place since then. Fortunately, the founding fathers of the Constitution advanced the highest claims for pluralism, describing it as the essence of Indian culture and civilization. Again, the electorate may now be out of tune with the secularism, but it is nonetheless wedded to preserving the idea of “Unity in Diversity.” This fact in itself is worthy of inclusion in our school and college curriculum, especially in the BJP-ruled States.


If the BJP leadership believes that the past is not worth returning to, it must provide an effective lead in curbing the violent instincts of its storm troopers. Otherwise, it will run into trouble. For our generation, this kind of reasoning has a familiar ring. The BJP has its own prophets who know it as well.


Fortunately, Mr. Nariman sorrowed, but he did not despair in his speech at the National Commission for Minorities in Delhi. I salute his courage. The unshaken ardor of such eminent men and women lends strength to our Republic.


Mushirul Hasan was formerly Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia and Director-General of the National Archives of India.

This article first appeared in The Hindu. Click here to go to the original. 

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