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Identity And Religious Conversion

By Tomichan Matheikal

28 May, 2009

We did not convert because we are poor. If I am poor but accepted by my community, there is no [social] terror in that poverty.... We did not convert for money. We converted because of the society that saw us as lesser, not worthy. We were ‘lower caste’, ‘untouchable’, ‘lowly’. Now we are Christian. Our god wants us. We can walk into his temple. We are worthy. You understand?” [Spoken by a Dalit convert in Orissa. Quoted in Violent Gods by Angana P. Chatterji, Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2009]

The driving force behind religious conversions is, more often than not, a desire to live a “worthy” life, to have an identity that one can be proud of. The caste system being practised even today in Hinduism, despite all governmental efforts to eradicate it, is a major cause of religious conversions in India. Poverty and attendant exploitation is also another cause. But it appears that poverty and exploitation are intertwined with the caste system.

The caste system in India was seen by Dr Ambedkar, principal author of India’s Constitution, as the country’s greatest evil since it treated millions of people as subhuman by the simple fact of their birth. The man who tried his best to replace the discriminatory caste system with an egalitarian society, the Buddha, ended up as yet another god among the millions of deities in India. His teachings were suppressed by the Brahmins who feared that their stranglehold on society would be undermined.

Orissa is a state in India which witnessed much terrible violence in the name of religion and religious conversions. The violence still continues.

The Sangh Parivar organisations are opposed to the alleged mass conversions into Christianity of Oriya adivasis (tribal people) and others belonging to the lower castes. Many acts of outrageous violence have been perpetrated on the Christians and thousands of them are displaced from their hometowns. The Hindutva organisations allege that Christian missionaries allure the poor people with money and other enticements. How much water does the allegation hold?

Angana P. Chatterji, from whose book the introductory quote has been taken, has done a commendable job researching into the violence in Orissa. According to her, the adivasis and other lower caste people of Orissa seldom considered themselves Hindus. In her words, “The Paika Bidroha of 1817-1825, the Kol insurrection of 1831-1832, the Kanika agitation of 1921-1922, the Praja Mandal (peasant) Movement of the 1930s and 1940s speak powerfully of Adivasi and subaltern refusal to submit to cultural colonialism and Brahminical imposition” (199). Even in the 1990s there were conflicts between the adivasis and the exponents of Hindutva including Lakshmanananda Saraswati (who claimed to be working for the welfare of the adivasis and the lower caste people of Orissa). For example, the RSS and Lakshmanananda Saraswati opposed the adivasis when they fought for indigenous child rights (359). These Hindutva leaders did not want the adivasis to be organised. They opposed the adivasi struggle for Kuidina (a state for themselves). They tried to suppress the Kandhamal Nari Jagaran Samiti and the Kuidina Ekta Samiti. “They (the RSS and Lakshmanananda Saraswati) are dangerous people,” Chatterji quote some Kui people. “They want to kill our people like animals. They do not understand religious differences. They do not understand our connection to our land. We are neither Christians nor Hindus. We are Adivasi. We worship the Earth. There are Christian Kui’s. The Mission [church] never forced us to convert. Not in Kandhamal, before or after 1947...” (359)

Chatterji exposes the myth that the adivasis considered or were eager to consider themselves Hindus. In May 2006, at a convention attended by about 50,000 adivasis, the Bisu Sendra Tribal Council, which serves the tribal communities in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, determined to ban Hindu customs and rituals, representations and priests from Adivasi spiritual and religious ceremonies (96).

Not different is the case with the lower caste people. Caste oppression has been a bone of contention for long in Orissa as in other parts of India. In Orissa, says Chatterji, “Dalit students and teachers have been denied employment and entry into schools and community events, and Dalit community members have been assaulted for participating in Hindu religious ceremonies” (69). Chatterji lists a number of incidents to show the disaffection between the people belonging to the higher and lower castes. Such incidents led to the conversion into Buddhism of about 3000 Dalits in Dec 2006.


Poverty also plays its role in this complex issue. Orissa is one of the most backward states in India. In the words of Ramachandra Guha, “In 1999 Orissa overtook – if that is the word – Bihar as India’s poorest state” [India After Gandhi, Picador India, 2007, p.707]. The adivasis and the lower caste people were exploited economically in the attempts to set up various industries. The Utkal Alumina, which brought together Canadian and Norwegian firms with the Aditya Birla Group, led to the displacement of many adivasis from their land. 3000 acres of land cultivated by the adivasis was taken over by the Biju Janata Dal government and given to the industrialists. The same government also acquired land in Kalinganagar at much less than the market rate and handed it over to Tata Steel to build a factory processing iron ore for the Chinese market.

Apart from the capitalist industrialists are other exploiters such as the money-lenders who stand to benefit much by keeping the adivasis and the low caste people poor. All these exploitations have made Orissa a hotbed of Maoists. Christian missionaries also creep in with the intention of helping the poor and the downtrodden.


The solution seems to lie in two factors:

1. Put an end to the discriminatory caste system. This would engender a sense of respectability among the adivasis and the lower castes. Then there would be no need for religious conversion as a means of attaining respectability.

2. Give economic independence to the adivasis and the lower castes. This would put an end to the Maoist violence as well as the charm held out by poverty to Christian missionaries.


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