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Gujarat Bill: Denying Religious Freedom In Freedom's Name

By Yoginder Sikand

21 September, 2006

The recent passing of a controversial bill by the Gujarat Assembly has, understandably enough, generated a storm of protest. Ironically called the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill 2006, the Bill, critics argue, represents a major assault on religious freedom, particularly of non-Hindus, in Gujarat. The Bill follows closely on the heels of similar legislative moves on the part of BJP governments in other states as well that, it is claimed, aim at clamping down on conversion of Hindus to other religions in the name of upholding 'religious freedom'.

The Bill, critics contend, is a direct violation of the freedom to practice and propagate religion as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. The Bill requires that if a person wishes to convert to another religion he or she has to first inform the local district magistrate, who is charged with verifying his or her case. Why this should be so is beyond one's understanding. Since religion is an intensely personal matter, between an individual and the Supreme Being, and a question of one's understanding of the world and Ultimate Reality, there ought to be no need to inform, leave alone secure the approval of, anyone about one's change of religious allegiance, just as one does not need to seek permission or inform anyone about a change in one's political allegiance, culinary habits or dress code, equally personal issues. Rather than promoting religious freedom, as the Bill ostensibly seeks to, this clause can easily be used to suppress it. Informing anyone, including a government functionary, before one's conversion can easily lead to pressure, witch-hunting and persecution by those, such as Hindutva supporters, within the governmental apparatus and in society at large who are vehemently opposed to Hindus converting to other religions. This is no mere speculation, for such persecution of religious converts and those seeking to convert has been happening on a frighteningly large scale in recent years.

In large measure, the Bill reflects the fierce opposition of the Hindutva lobby, and, more generally, of many 'upper' caste Hindus, to the struggles for emancipation of the dominated and marginalized castes, who have historically accounted for the vast majority of converts to various non-Hindu religions in India. The history of religious conversion movements in India is, by and large, the story of numerous struggles of Dalits, Adivasis and other similarly oppressed caste groups seeking a new, more positive identity for themselves that Brahminical Hinduism has denied them. Brahminical Hinduism has branded these communities, who, together, form the vast majority of the Indian population, as 'low' and 'despicable', as is evident in almost all the key Brahminical texts. The subordination of the oppressed castes that Brahmincal Hinduism clearly legitimises is central to the maintenance of the hegemony of the 'upper' caste Hindu elite. In protest against Brahminical chauvinism, large numbers of people from the oppressed castes have chosen religious conversion as a powerful means of protest. This explains why the majority of non-Hindus in India, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs, are of oppressed caste background. Even today, most converts to non-Hindu religions are from these castes.

Since conversion to non-Hindu religions is a potent symbol of defiance of the caste system and 'upper' caste religious, cultural, social and economic oppression, it is obvious that many 'upper' caste Hindus, including those affiliated to the Hindutva lobby that defends 'upper' caste privilege while claiming to speak on behalf of all 'Hindus', are vehemently opposed to the freedom of Hindus, particularly those branded as 'low' caste, to convert to other religions, because it threatens 'upper' caste hegemony.

At the same time, ironically, the Hindutva lobby is a vociferous advocate of the conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism, or what it calls shuddhi ('purification', reflecting, probably, the Brahminical belief that non-Hindus are 'impure') or 'ghar vapasi' ('returning home'). Not much is talked about this in the press, which prefers to focus, instead, on conversions to Christianity and Islam. But this agenda is real enough. To cite just one instance, a recent article in the RSS-mouthpiece Organiser (17 September, 2006) by a certain Ravi Shanker Kapoor, bearing the revealing title 'Shuddhi Movement Needed: Hindus Should Promote Religious Conversion', exhorts Hindus to convert Indian Muslims to Hinduism. Conversions of Muslims, and, to a greater extent, Christians, to Hinduism has been happening in India in recent years. Predictably, these have been lauded, rather than condemned, by Hindutva advocates of a ban on or strict regulation of religious conversion.

A crucial issue in the conversion debate is the question of who precisely is a Hindu. There is no ready, textbook definition of what Hinduism is or what a person needs to believe or practice in order to be considered a Hindu. Most often, attempts at producing such a definition project Brahminical Hinduism as laying down what Hinduism is all about. This, of course, ignores the religious traditions of vast numbers of Dalits and Adivasis, which, on crucial points, have nothing to do with Brahminical Hinduism and are diametrically opposed to it. And if Brahmnical Hinduism comes to be seen as defining Hinduism, large numbers of people from the oppressed castes can hardly be said to be Hindu at all, or, at the very most, 'imperfect' Hindus.

Almost all the classical Brahminical texts do not even once mention the word 'Hindu', and for centuries the dominant castes did not consider Dalits, Adivasis and other such oppressed castes as fellow Hindus in practical terms. Even today, widespread prejudice against the oppressed castes makes the notion of Hindus as a single community, united by a feeling of brotherhood, equality and oneness, quite meaningless in empirical terms. It is the British who first categorized Hindus as a single community, but the definition they deployed was a negative one: Indians who were not Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain were treated as 'Hindus'. It was thus by default that Dalits and other such oppressed castes came to be considered as 'Hindus' in the administrative or legal sense of the term. In actual fact, however, in large parts of India these caste groups are still not treated by 'upper' caste Hindus as co-religionists ideally should be. Hence, to argue that Dalits or Adivasis converting to, say, Christianity, are abandoning Hinduism is problematic, to say the least.

The Indian state, following the British, continues with this definition of 'Hindu', thus effectively converting to an amorphously-defined Hinduism large numbers of Dalits and Adivasis, whose 'Hinduness' is doubtful going by what the Brahminical scriptures teach and by the practice and attitudes of many 'upper' caste Hindus. An ostensibly secular state has, therefore, taken on itself the right to define what and who is a Hindu. One can easily discern in this creation by the state of the legal definition of a single Hindu community the 'upper' caste Hindu quest for the preservation of caste Hindu hegemony. This legal definition of a Hindu has created the notion, not seriously sustainable empirically, of Hindus as the 'majority' community, by co-opting Dalits, Adivasis and so on, into the 'Hindu' fold. This definition and the logic of Hindu majoritarianism is then used in different ways to legitimize the domination of the 'upper' caste minority, with the 'upper' castes presenting themselves and accepted by the 'upper' caste-dominated state and society state as the spokesmen of the entire Hindu community as it has come to be legally constructed. And to further sustain 'upper' caste hegemony, Dalits, Adivasis and other such marginalised communities are subjected to what is effectively a process of religious conversion to Brahminical Hinduism, subtly, through the state, which insists on defining them as Hindus, through the Hinduised state education system and, more overtly, through a range of 'upper' caste-led religious groups, including those associated with the Hindutva lobby, through roving ' sadhus', bhajan-mandalis and temples that are, in a planned way, being actively promoted among these communities. In this regard, why, one might well ask, is it that the ongoing religious conversion of such communities to Brahminical Hinduism is not considered a form of religious conversion that the Gujarat Bill ostensibly seeks to control. The answer, of course, is obvious: the framers of the Bill probably seek to prevent conversion to non-Hindu religions while remaining silent, if not encouraging, non-Hindus to convert to Hinduism.

Another related problem with the arrogation by the state of the right to decide what or who as Hindu is, critics of the Bill point out, relates to the Bill's arbitrary and unwarranted clubbing of Jains and Buddhists as 'Hindus'. Gujarat's Minister of State for Home, Amit Shah, who introduced the Bill, is on record as having arbitrarily announced that Jainism and Buddhism were 'construed as parts of Hinduism'. How and why the state, especially one that claims to be secular, should have that right is a crucial question. Numerous Buddhists and Jains do not consider themselves as Hindus, particularly in theological terms. The state, therefore, has no right to declare them so against their will. Indeed, Indian history is replete with instances of bloody persecution by Brahmins and their royal supporters of Jains and Buddhists, declaring them to be anti-Vedic heretics. Brahminical hatred for Jainism and Buddhism was rooted in the fact that these two religions, in their inception, were stiffly opposed to Brahminical hegemony and the oppression of the non-Brahmins that classical Hinduism legitimised. Clubbing together these religions with Hinduism is thus a clever means to deny their separate identity, paper over their historical contradictions with Brahminism, and, ultimately, to absorb them into the Hindu fold. In a sense, this is tantamount to another form of religious conversion but on a massive scale—converting entire religious traditions and their followers to the status of mere branches of the amorphous Hindu religion and community.

Clearly, then, the Gujarat Bill is deeply flawed. It is an assault on religious freedom while claiming to protect it. It is a violation of the right of marginalized communities to struggle for new, more positive identities that Brahminical Hinduism has denied them. It is a subtle means for preserving 'upper' caste hegemony and stave off threats to it. It is also a devious means to co-opt large numbers of non-Hindu Jains and Buddhists into the Hindu fold against their will. In short, those denouncing the Bill are amply justified in their opposition.

The author works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He moderates an online discussion group 'South Asian Leftists Dialoguing With Religion' (









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