Conversions, Caste and Communalism

In the past two years the debates on religious conversions, caste and communalism have gripped India in a serious imbroglio which is fallout of the present nature of state politics in the country. The years 2007-08 have been the most volatile ever since the anti-Godhra riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002, which exposed the role that the governments in India have played in arousing communal passions through state machinery. These are difficult times, and the time that would follow poses more complex challenges for state-politics in India. We can trace the beginnings of these events in the year 2007, though hypothetically, to a controversy in Punjab: the chief of Dera Sacha Sauda (a religious sect founded 1948, which has a large following among dalits), Gurmat Ram Rahim, supposedly emulated Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, at a religious ceremony in Sirsa; this has led to often violent exchanges between the two groups. Since then the states of Punjab, Haryana and some districts of Rajasthan are boiling in religious tensions, reminiscent of the crisis between Akalis and Nirankaris in 1978. This year India is already in the midst of a communal backlash against Christian converts in Orissa, primarily among tribals, in the wake of the killing of Swami Lakshmananda of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who had been spearheading an anti-conversion campaign in the tribal belt of Khandamahal. The fire has now spread to Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India.

There is another issue of terror-strikes which has rattled major Indian cities this year. Fortunately it has not as yet led to any communal reaction against Muslims. But that is merely on the surface, as discrimination against Muslims in India is at an all-time high, which has now been transformed into a large-scale social discrimination. Since educated Muslims have now allegedly been framed in these events of terror, it only reflects how deeply religious discrimination in India now touches a class which was earlier related to the mainstream Indian elite. A prominent film and theatre personality like Shabana Azmi has come up with these startling revelations of denial of a residential flat merely because she is a Muslim. Even states like Punjab have reported a case of expulsion of a daughter-father duo from a school in Phagwara, because it was discovered that despite his name, Mangat Chaudhary, the father was a Muslim. (The name ‘Mangat’ is rare among urban Muslims of Punjab, both east and west.) The trend of branding ordinary Muslims as terrorists or sympathisers has serious implications for Indian democracy as the real issues underlined in the Sachar report on social exclusion among Muslims are undermined.

The most significant aspect of the religious conflicts in recent times is that they now reach out to rural India, a domain which was earlier considered a symbol of communal brotherhood. Communalism in India is extending its tentacles. It is no longer an urban phenomenon and in this era of globalisation the anxieties of growth and economic security have started spreading its tentacles to the crude representation of religious identities. The fundamental right to practice the religion of one’s choice has been guaranteed in Article 25 of the Constitution of India. But violent and forcible closures of Dera naam charchas (religious congregations) and Christian congregations in various parts of India remind us that we are heading towards a new complexity where religion has become an instrument to fuel social tensions. The debate on conversion in India has generally been viewed as an expression against religious orthodoxy and its deep rooted social discrimination against dalits and tribals, but it also strikes at economic backwardness and lack of access to better ways of livelihood. The latter should be seen as the failure of the Indian state to reach out to the poor and needy.

Poverty and social alleviation has been an integral part of Indian governance in the post independence period, but has become a farce in this era of globalisation, and it is precisely against this backdrop that we need to understand the claims of religion and re-conversion in India. India has traditionally been and continues be a caste-ridden society, where maintenance of caste-based hierarchies has been instrumental in defining the power structures. And this power-structure has traditionally been maintained by keeping dalits and tribals in a state of permanent economic dependency. Owing to the post-independence initiatives of the state for the socio-economic alleviation of dalits and tribals, and their political resurgence in the wake of the Mandal recommendations in 1980, national and regional politics in India today banks heavily on ‘politicised’ caste. But the question remains whether these developments brought any tangible change in the lives of the people. The dominant dalit and tribal politics in India is as elite as any other electoral politics in the country. The state and electoral politics has failed to have an impact upon the lives of the depressed among dalits and tribals.

If we go through the organisation of these Deras in Punjab and missionaries’ institutions in various parts of India we are indeed struck by the infrastructure, primarily educational (both schools and colleges), hospitals and programmes for poverty alleviation (micro-credit, agriculture innovations, etc.) undertaken by them in the interior parts of India. The appreciable part of these programmes is that these interventions do create an impact on the lives of the poor and marginalised. Conversions have to be looked at from this perspective too. It is not inducement or force to convert but the force to bring about change in their living conditions that has been crucial to shifting religious identities. Here again, we see the near total absence of state infrastructure, the space which is continuously being taken over by non-state actors.

Significantly the changing socio-economic condition of dalits and Christians has also given them political expression at the local level. It is pertinent to note that the forceful political articulation of Dera-followers, against the recent anti-Dera agitation by the various Sikh groups, has been the most significant expression of dalit politics of Punjab and Haryana. The incidents of forceful closure of naam charcha continue unabated in the rural parts of the Malwa region of Punjab, yet there is also opposition (often violent) to such incidents by the Dera-followers who are primarily dalits, Sikhs and Hindus. The Jat-dominated Gurdwaras have gone to the extent of announcing a social boycott of dera-followers, and have refused to give them access to the holy Guru Granth Sahib for their social and religious ceremonies. Conversely there have been instances of dalits adopting novel ways of marrying, for instance, by circumambulating the photograph of Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary Punjabi martyr of pre-independence India who is revered throughout India. Increasing instances of clashes between Sikh Jats and dalit-Christians in rural areas is a similar expression of social tensions in this region.

The vocal and articulate assertion of dalits and tribals, and converts among them, has also led to a reactionary mobilisation of upper castes, for instance against Dera-politics in Punjab or religious conversions throughout India. The shifting economic base of dalits from agriculture, the tensions of the traditional rural structure, and articulation of ‘disobedient dalit subjects’ have important implications for the communal scenario in India. These debates are significant for an understanding of the future of democratic politics in India. Some scholars have suggested that the violent communal scenario at the present time is a result of the shrinking secular space in India. I would add that the failure of secular institutions of Indian democracy to reach out to the poorest and the needy has led to the growing menace of communal disharmony in this country. The decay of the rural infrastructure of schools and primary health centres has inadvertently led to the shrinking space of secular politics in India. This is the greatest challenge that Indian democracy faces today in a neo-liberal era of globalisation.

Yogesh Snehi has been contributing to the broadening of debates on historical aspects of northern India, especially Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and has worked on areas such as conjugality, gender and social reform, development and literacy movements. His interest in social history has enabled his contribution to the understanding of popular syncretism and sufi shrines (dargahs) in Punjab. He is also critically engaged with the rhetoric and reality behind debates on female infanticide and foeticide in Punjab. Presently he is working on the issues of communalism in the popular history textbooks of Punjab. He teaches History and is working at DAV College, Amritsar.

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