Politics of religious conversion against caste and Hindu-Secular state

Kushal Choudhary

The year 1956 was one of the most important years in the history of caste in modern times. Dr. Ambedkar, the stalwart anti-caste scholar, statesman and leader, led the people of his community, the Mahars and other untouchables, towards a religious conversion to Buddhism. The mass religious conversions stipulated the process of conversion as a political ideology in an anti-caste discourse. The scholar Jayashree Gokhale in her 1986 essay noted that Ambedkar’s interest in Buddhism as a gateway to liberation of the Dalits against the chains of Hindu varnashrama (the institution of caste) was shared; the Mahar community too had an agenda to escape the shackles of caste by conversion. Gokhale points out that “[…] the first raising of the conversion issue (1935), and the religions mentioned as possibilities (Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism), occured in the wake of the Poona Pact, which had undone the grant of separate electorates for the Untouchables in accord with the Communal Award of August 1932,”.The Mahars, over time, regarded Buddhism as inevitably linked to their history. They claimed that Buddhism was the original religion that they followed and Hinduism, in actuality, was imposed upon them and so was the institution of caste. The claim empowers the ideology of conversion to be effective and in turn instills meaning into the aspect of conversion as a political goal. This political goal is also counter-hegemonic, reducing numbers for a Hindu order that has deprived its major population.

The humiliation and downtrodden condition of the untouchables is a source of immense loss of self-respect and the adoption of Buddhism and its Dhamma is supposed to alleviate those conditions materially, spearhead a community of better-off ex-untouchables, and ultimately break away from ages of humiliation. Thousands of untouchables were to benefit from this political tool, for many it opened the gates to become a middle-class in searing modernity. And in this respect, conversion became a strong political goal that could drastically change material conditions of the downtrodden and uplift them. With the Constitution of India in place, reservations and criminalisation of Untouchability was in favour of the anti-caste movement but “despite the realization of legal and constitutional goals, the ideological objectives of the movement remained unfulfilled for Ambedkar.” Hence, conversion showed a way to reorient the ideological positioning of the Untouchables.

It is important to put the historical relevance of conversion into the context of the Indian republic. The state has had the power to validate or invalidate the acts of converting from/ changing a religion. It turns out, in all its functionality, the state and its many institutions are inclined to look at the issue of conversion as a situation for or against the ideals of secularism. These ideals, a careful look at them shows, are complicated and most of the time not in the best interests of the oppressed and depressed. For example, the conversions of 1956 and beyond, even if they were individually effective in bringing about a respectful identity for many, the mark of caste and untouchability couldn’t be eradicated by the mere act. Many converts, Buddhist Dalits/Mahars still faced discrimination and humiliation (also for newer reasons—for leaving Hinduism). The state producing the ideals of secularism, which has a shallow understanding of caste argued for many years that since Buddhism doesn’t have the phenomenon of caste (only Hinduism is understood to have it), and that the newly converted Mahars are not Hindu anymore, therefore, they cannot avail the benefits of reservations in the government sector. This is a general way of looking at religions which by nature is a pre-independence learning of the Indian state. The segregation of what is Hindu, against what is not, is a practice that has been set up at least since the time of the missionary goal of colonial rule has been in place in the Indian subcontinent. This notion that created divisions among Hindus and Muslims and other religions were also used for the purposes of electorates. These divisions are only bound together by the fact that ‘in spite of the differences’ the religious boundaries can co-exist within the idea of the nation. Indian secularism has borrowed this attitude to this present day which manifests in many ways against the ‘freedom of religion’.

The idea of a Hindu-Secular

As with the colonial history of categorising religions against the Hindu, the ideals of secularism, which are a fundamental part of the Indian Constitution for the nation, too have been evolved by the discourse of the Indian polity, in favour towards Hinduism. Since secularism marks the distinction of religions, only to be bound by the nation, it is tied to the idea of nationalism that falls too easily under the garb of Hindu majoritarianism.

If conversion can become an ideology to lead a fight against historical injustices, secularism too is ideological in its use by the state. The secular institutions of modern India have exercised this ideology whenever the need called for. And when the need of the preservation of the majority — the Hindu population— arose, the state never shied away from complying. To see the simpler ways the secularism of the Indian republic has been used to serve the purpose of Hindu majoritarian politics, one might look no further than the legislature’s history of the ‘Freedom of Religions’ Acts of different states; they showcase the making of a Hindu-Secular idea. The Freedom of Religion acts has been infamous for being a direct misnomer to what they are actually meant for. They invert religious freedom to serve a stance towards law-making that can inhibit any conversions that threaten Hindus by number. They are noted to be anti-conversion legislations. Apart from the ghar-wapsi campaign which is ground-work Hindutva, the acts are evidence of how easily one can bend liberal-secular ideals of the system of parliamentary democracy to nationalistic ends. Scholar Jennifer Coleman in her essay Authoring (in)Authenticity, Regulating Religious Tolerance talks about the acts in general being enacted by many states by claiming the protection of “‘weaker’ or more easily influenced sectors of society — namely women, children, backward castes and untouchables”.

A basic caveat: secularism as an idea is potent and debatable to lengthy extents, but its basic principle is to section, organise and regulate whatever can be considered religious or sacred. Hence, this ism imposes certain notions of what passes as sacred and religious in Indian society and by this very ideological act, it regulates and organises homogeneous religious identities. This also extends to the fact that secularism is caste oblivious at large.

Regardless, it is not hard to figure out that the claim of protection against ‘religious gullibility’ by state governments (Orissa and Madhya Pradesh being among the first to adopt such acts) is in accordance with the controlling and categorising nature of secularism. Thus, the Madhya Pradesh’s 1968 legislation of Freedom of Religions Act has argued that unlawful conversions have an end to disturb communal life and traditional values by destabilizing identities, even claiming a “denationalization of Indians”.

The acts have been challenged many times for undermining the spirit of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees ‘freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion’ in court, but it is surprising to see the complicity of the courts towards the anti-constitutional nature of the acts, allowing the use of the acts.

Coleman not only notes the problematic disposition of the acts but also an inclination of one of the most crucial institutions of secularism, that of the judiciary, to encompass religious cultures into a Hindu order by the virtue of the judicial hammer. The Courts have with many decisions concerning religious quarrels, religious offshoots of Hinduism, and constitutional validities of anything that falls into the ‘secular realm’ (a realm that is defined majorly by the Courts since they have the power to exercise constitutionality) for the state has provided for an idea that Hinduism cannot be superseded in priority by any other religion or by any acts that disturb it. Coleman notes that “Hinduism has been constructed by the Court in certain instances as a socio-spiritual heritage and set of practices that greet alternate traditions with benign osmosis and acculturation.” This combined with the anti-conversion legislation passed in various states of India brings us to the understanding that the two central constituents of the democratic framework, the judiciary and the legislature, are representatives of the subservience of secularism to the idea of the majoritarian religion and nationalism.

Caste and Secularism

As we saw earlier, caste is, at best, a perplexing problem for secularism and the secular state. It fails to recognise the sociology of religion and in particular, its dynamics with caste. Coleman notifies that the provision for constitutional amenities for minorities such as reservations have been severely distinguished among the lines of religion and caste, rebuking the flow of caste into each and every sociological category one can think of. Even though at a later stage in history, Buddhist Dalits were provided with the benefits of affirmative action, other religions that catered to caste converts were and still are left out of it. Thus “[…]while caste and untouchability are traditionally associated with Hinduism, caste is not extinguished through conversion alone. Caste, being so tied to the body, penetrates much of Christian, Muslim, and wider Indian society, even while these low caste and untouchable Christian and Muslims are not guaranteed equal access to the government’s affirmative action policies and quota systems.”

Religious conversions, especially adopted by minorities to deny hostile caste identity, without any support from secular discourses (but rather political maligning and invalidation by the state and polity alike) have now become a mere necessity to escape the shackles of caste and caste atrocities. Mass conversions are bound to be vilified by the public discourse but regardless conversions to Buddhism emerge in the society after major incidents of atrocity have been committed against lower castes. Una flogging incidents and Hathras rape atrocity has resulted in many to convert. These religious conversions are reactions to major forms of helplessness and violence instilled on their community. With increasing atrocities and denial of rights for the Dalits, can we expect conversion as a movement, akin to the Mahars and Ambedkar’s reckoning of 1956?
There are many reasons to believe not. First is that any mass conversions are now increasingly under the watch of the state. The recent conversions by 236 Valmikis were met with the police lodging an FIR against ‘unidentified persons’ for promoting enmity amongst various religious groups. The new ‘love jihad’ laws in UP and expected soon in Karnataka will further vilify any form of religious conversion in general. One might see this latest act of subservience of the institutions of secularism to Hindu nationalism as a resultant of the historical process of secular complexities and the state’s reluctance to act against religious fundamentalism in face of Hindu-Secular ideals. The new laws are an extreme of fundamentalism that increases the agency of the anti-conversion notions by attaching the hatred of the Muslim other and the myth connecting marriage and religious conversion.

Second is that mass conversions as a movement also needs a massive population agreeing to ideological repositioning and stalwart leaders. Many leaders, such as Mayawati, have threatened to convert to Buddhism but such a move is said to be risky, even political suicide when considering the ground politics of vote-banks.

Third is a lack of historical sense of pride towards Buddhism or any other religion. The Mahars were convinced of the legacy of Buddhism in their lives and genuinely believed in the righteousness of Buddhism, further supported by Ambedkar’s supreme word. Their major argument was a historical sense of being contained in their claim to Buddhism and its denial of caste. But with the advent of a general vilification of religious conversion by the secular state and reactionary conversions vis-à-vis caste violence, one can see that the political act of conversion may become a disturbance too small to be counter-hegemonic.

The Hindu order and its hijacking of the state’s complex yet consequential notions of secularism has incapacitated the movement and relevance of religious conversion. New orders of dissent must attempt to revive an outlook towards religious conversion and in the face of new legislations and forms of violence against anything that is considered a disturbance to ‘religious harmony’ by a fundamentalist state, making the case for the ‘right to convert’.

Kushal Choudhary is an independent writer based in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh.