Sunday, August 31, 2014
'Reconverting' churches and Christians: BJP's 'Hindu Samaj' strategy in UP
The Meerut case in which a young woman was allegedly gang raped and forcibly converted to Islam was obviously not the last we heard about religious conversions in the dramatically polarised state of Uttar Pradesh. Just weeks after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's 'Dharm Jagran Vibhag' or religious awakening departmentpromised a "homecoming ceremony" for youth "rescued" from conversions in western Uttar Pradesh, a church in the region's Aligarh district was overnight turned into a Shiva temple following a "purification" ceremony for 72 members of the Valmiki caste who embraced Christianity in 1995.
The ceremony took place inside a 7th Day Adventist church in Asroi, 30 km from Aligarh town, according to The Times of India.
"A cross was allegedly remove from the church and placed outside the gate and a portrait of Shiva installed," the report said.
The RSS's Khem Chandra, also chief of the Dharma Jagran Vibhag, was quoted as calling it a "ghar wapasi" event or a homecoming.
"This is called ghar wapasi, not conversion. They left by choice and today they have realized their mistake and want to come back. We welcome them. We can't let our samaj scatter, we have to hold it tight. I have told them that honour comes from within the community and not from outside," he was quoted as saying.
Even as tension spread in the village and villagers clammed up, one of those who underwent the so-called shuddhikaran or purification ceremony held inside the church told the newspaper that these families had converted to Christianity because they had been unhappy with the caste system. But religious conversion did not improve their lot and he finally agreed to return to the Hindu fold.
Expectedly, the Christians in Aligarh are not amused. A pastor was upset at the pooja being conducted inside the church, while a lawyer from the community was quoted expressing his suspicions over the sudden rise of the 'Love Jihad' trope and now the sudden focus on 'ghar wapasi'. "Is this the sign of a Hindu rashtra in the making?" he reportedly asked TOI.
Ahead of bypolls to a dozen Assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh and with Assembly elections coming up in two years' time in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, this incident of reconversion cannot be seen as a stray incident. In any case, the Dharm Jagran Vibhag has already said it will launch mass awareness campaigns across Uttar Pradesh, especially in the tinderbox that is western UP.
How closely the BJP is involved with the issue of religious conversions and reconversions could be seen in Aligarh mayor and BJP leader Shakuntala Bharati's comment to The Hindu in the aftermath of the Meerut religious conversion case, a woman described as having built her career fighting the so-called 'love jihad'. “I have lost count of the incidents. But I have faced death to rescue our girls from the clutches of Muslims,” she told The Hindu. The Dharma Jagran Vibhag representatives have also said candidly that they are "very active" in Agra, Aligarh, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar.
But there is more going on between the lines here than immediately apparent. The 'love jihad' issue is clearly a convenient and potent polarising force that will no doubt remain in the news until elections are safely past. But the 'ghar wapasi' is for Hindus -- or precisely Dalits -- who adopted Christianity as a way out of casteism.
A fragmentation of the Scheduled Caste vote is seen as one of the reasons for the complete rout of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent general elections. But Assembly constituencies are smaller and sub-caste cleavages may not suffice to defeat Dalit parties' candidates. Mayawati has said she will not fielding candidates for the bypolls, which leaves the Sangh parivar with the simple task of wooing the Chamars, Valmikis, Pasis and other sub-castes with renewed vigour, to mop up Dalit votes. Of course, Uttar Pradesh will go to polls in 2017, and the BSP will be a major contender then. Rounding up more faithfuls for the Sangh parivar now is good, early planning for a tough contest then.
The 'ghar wapasi' in Aligarh is not the only instance. In late July, a mini-riot in Kanth town in Moradabad was not any Hindu-Muslim clash -- it was a Dalit versus Muslim dispute over the use of a loudspeaker in a place of worship used by the Dalit community. As Firstpost had reported then, "The BJP's attempt to bring the Dalits into the Hindutva fold also springs from the compulsions of assembly by-elections. The assembly constituency adjoining Kanth is Thakurdwara, which will soon have to elect an MLA in place of Sarvesh Kumar, who is now a Lok Sabha member. To magnify a local dispute is likely to yield rich electoral dividends."
Moradabad MP Kunwar Sarvesh Kumar Singh in fact said this to The Hindu in the aftermath of that riot: "It is not only about Dalits but the larger Hindu identity and about Hindu samaj. The Hindus in the vicinity of the village also need to be taken along because it is a matter of larger Hindu solidarity.”
For more proof of the BJP-BSP tussle, there's the BSP MLC who BJP president Amit Shah reportedly wants to field as the BJP candidate against Mulayam Singh Yadav's grand nephew Tej Pratap Singh Yadav in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat that MUlayam vacated. Union Minister Rajnath Singh has also responded to Mayawati's jibes about the RSS with a quick description of the Sangh's abhorrence of casteand creed.
Dalits are a large percentage of the population of western Uttar Pradesh, and weakening the BSP's hold on them works in the favour of the BJP's apparent strategy to polarise the state sharply. No doubt, the removal of a cross from a church that a Dalit community used since the late 1990s is only the start of a new political campaign underway in the state.