January 03, 2015

India: The Politics of Ghar Wapsi about Hindutva drive to "reconvert" Muslims and Christians to Hinduism (Manjari Katju, EPW, Jan 3, 2015)

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - L No. 1, January 03, 2015


The Politics of Ghar Wapsi
by Manjari Katju

This article argues that the Hindutva drive to "reconvert" Muslims and Christians to Hinduism is essentially about shoring up the numerical strength and political power of the "Hindu community" and has little connection to religious persuasion. Converting minorities to Hinduism has always been an intrinsically violent affair and is linked to the notion of India being a homeland only of the Hindus.

The recent vigour that the Sangh Parivar and especially the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) have displayed in their “reconversion” or ghar Wapsi (literally, “returning home”) drives reveal once again the enthusiasm within the groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) about the change of regime in India. They feel that since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is “their” government, they have every right to openly operationalise the Hindutva programmes with gusto. It is quite obvious that they believe that the popular mandate is in support of Hindutva or the Hindu nationalist ideology, which visualises Hindus as constituting a macho and virile community that defines the nation and would stand up to protect Bharat Mata (Mother India) against the “ferocious other”. However, they also feel that the number of Hindus is going down and if nothing is done about it, this “other” would take over the Hindus’ motherland.

This “other”, constituting mainly the Muslims and the Christians, is seen as growing in numerical strength and one of the ways in which it is doing so is through conversions. Thus, violence against and intimidation of Muslims and the Christians by the Sangh Parivar, along with programmes directed at them such as ghar Wapsi are part of the same script. They are expressions of Hindu “power” in “Hindus’ homeland”. The message from the Sangh Parivar is clear, that it has won state power and now it has to demonstrate its power over the social space with the same vigour and brute display of force both physical and verbal. This also means that it has taken upon itself to undo the “wrongs” which it sees as heaped over the Hindus.

Freedom of Religion

The fundamental right of freedom of religion has always been a source of political insecurity for the Sangh Parivar. More than religion it is political considerations that have directed the Parivar’s outlook on freedom of religion. This right is seen as a privilege granted by a “secular” Constitution to minorities – mainly, Muslim and Christian – to expand their ranks. That is why organisations such as the VHP demand that the freedom of religion granted by the Constitution be amended by banning conversions. The very birth of the VHP in 1964, as a member of the RSS family, was for the purpose of protecting and preserving Hindu dharma and containing the supposed growth of Christianity and Islam. One of the ways in which this was visualised was by stopping the drift of people considered on the margins of the Hindu faith to Christianity and Islam, and then reversing this drift. For instance, the embracing of Christianity by people living in some of the north-eastern states of India was seen as a political threat. The belief within the RSS was that these parts where people had embraced Christianity would try to break away from Akhand Bharat (literally “united India” but implies “Greater India”), much in the nature of Muslim Pakistan breaking away earlier, and threaten the integrity of the country. The VHP was thereby floated to work among communities seen to be on the religious-geographical margins of the Hindu community and prevent this break up. One of the guiding principles on which it was founded was (Tarte 1989-90),

The VHP should make efforts to make the age old Hindu dharma compatible with the present requirements of society so that it is able to face the challenges of the modern world.

The VHP thus tried to “modernise” and reshape Hindu dharma. It followed in the footsteps of the Arya Samaj and worked for the ecclesiastical expansion of Hinduism in independent India. It took up ritual purification or shuddhikaran (Sikand and Katju 1994) for absorption of social groups into the Hindu fold. Likewise, it went against the core principles of Sanatan Dharma by moving away from the tenet of religion by birth and to one of religion through assimilation and absorption. This belief was closely related to the obsession with numbers and in turn, as I mentioned earlier, with political power.

The efforts to bring people to the Hindu fold were intensified after the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981 when a group of dalits converted to Islam to escape caste oppression. The belief within the RSS, and thus the VHP, was that the number of Hindus was dwindling because they are being “lured” by minority religions, and if this is allowed unchecked it would result in the loss of political power to the “other”. According to the leadership of the VHP, Christianity and Islam had plans “to make Hindus a minority in India in the next 30 years; and, that they want to establish their rule in India and completely destroy Hindu culture”.1 Thus, efforts had to be made by the Parivar to check Christianity and Islam and this had to be supplemented by taking up proselytisation by Hindus themselves and shore up Hindu numbers. The outlook of the Parivar was that from a religion which is fenced-in by its competitors, Hinduism should become, or at least be seen as, a religion that is expanding. Conversions were seen as one of the primary ways for this expansion.

The VHP in its campaigns emphasised checking religious conversions of Hindus, the “reconversion” to Hinduism of those outside and the building of strong samaskaras (religio-cultural practices) among the Hindus.2 It called upon its members to build a strong Hindu organisation at the village and mohalla level and a consistent movement for cultural awakening. It also laid stress on the expansion of welfare services to the masses and the propagation of social harmony. It took it upon itself to warn people of the “illusionist propagation by irreligious conspirators and temptations offered by them”.3

Parivartan or Ghar Wapsi

The VHP named the process of conversions (to Hinduism), or what it calls reconversion, parivartan or ghar wapsi. One can see that some of these arguments, especially about the numbers of Hindus, find a constant refrain even now among the VHP. In the words of VHP leader Pravin Togadia (Mumbai Mirror 2014), the VHP

is committed to ensuring the population of Hindus in the country doesn’t fall below the current level of 82%…we won’t let their population decline from 82% to 42% because then their property and women will not remain safe.

He further said “…the whole world was once inhabited by Hindus” and that his organisation “will strive to increase the population of Hindu in India from 82% to 100%”.

The VHP has always opposed conversions of Hindus to other religions. It has advocated legal restraints on such conversions because it sees them as luring away of people through material inducements, which it terms “forced conversion”. However, it has actively promoted conversions to Hinduism of those who supposedly drifted to Islam and Christianity or are being “lured” to these faiths. Such reconversions are easy to attempt by the VHP because of the vulnerability of those who are subjected to it. As such they are also an easy way to assert power at the social level.

It needs to be recalled that the ghar wapsi attempts of the Sangh Parivar had gathered force even in the late 1990s when the BJP was ascending and won power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The VHP and Bajrang Dal had accelerated their campaigns both in the tribal and urban areas. Reconversion drives in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa (now Odisha) had intensified and were accompanied by violence against the Christian institutions and missionaries. The Dangs, Jhabua and Sarguja districts were constantly in the news for violence unleashed on Christian priests and nuns. Leaflets were circulated in the Dangs calling upon Hindus to “wipe out” Christians from the district (Venkatesan 1999). Graham Staines and his two small sons were burnt alive in Odisha by persons allegedly linked to VHP’s offshoot, the Bajrang Dal, in one of the most gruesome instances of Hindu right-wing violence. The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after repeated attacks on Christians in the Dangs district, finally did criticise such attacks but then watered it down by adding that reconversion could not be stopped so long as conversions (meaning, of Hindus to Christianity and Islam) did not end (Venkatesan 1999).

Violence Unleashed by Ghar Wapsi

In most instances, as seen above, the act of ghar wapsi has unleashed violence and suffering on the targeted group as well as on the minority communities in the region. This clearly indicates that ghar wapsi is not a simple act of conversion or reconversion but has a political-ideological intent behind it. Religious violence in Kandhamal district in Odisha in the first decade of this century is another instance of this conversion-related violence. Kandhamal is a predominantly tribal district where the VHP has been active for long. It has made efforts to Hinduise the Kandha tribal community since the 1960s and has succeeded to quite an extent. The target of the VHP has been the Christian minority who belong to a community known as Pana dalits. Communal tensions have occurred between the Hinduised tribals (who speak the Kui language) and the Chrisitan Pana dalits. These tensions intensified in December 2007 when Christian institutions were attacked. This was followed by more violence against the Christians beginning in August 2008 following the murder of the controversial VHP leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati who worked in that area. There is fairly strong evidence to link the VHP and Bajrang Dal with the attacks on the Christians in Kandhamal.

The violence unleashed on Christian churches and missionaries in tribal areas was a way of creating fear to prevent others from adopting Christianity. Threatening language is useful to scare people from practising Christianity. These threats are one of the ways of pushing de-Christianisation.4 This sort of polarisation and the violence that has followed in the wake of the VHP and Bajrang Dal activities have previously been unknown in the tribal areas. The Bajrang Dal, which looks upon itself as a vigilante force and, in fact, performs the role of sociocultural policing with the community has taken upon itself not to allow mass conversions (to Christianity).5

Like in the late 1990s, ghar wapsi has been intensified after the formation of government by the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If physical violence has, as yet, been muted, verbal aggression and intimidation has been prominent in the present-day drives by the VHP, Bajrang Dal and their associate groups.

Some Features of Ghar Wapsi

The way the Sangh Parivar has gone about accomplishing ghar wapsi has certain distinctive features. First, it is the communities on the borders of the Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Christian fault lines that have been the target. These communities, for instance, the Cheeta-Merat Rajputs or the Maul-e-Salaam Muslims or the dalit Christians follow both Hindu and Muslim/Christian practices. In many instances they celebrate both the Hindu and the Muslim or Christian festivals. The VHP’s attempt to reconvert these communities involves getting them to give up Muslim or Christian practices – like burying their dead, giving up nikah and circumcision, replacing the cross with Hindu idols, giving up church prayers, etc. This ghar wapsi is largely a de-Islamisation or de-Christianisation rather than imbuing the reconverts with Hindu spiritual or shastric knowledge (for details see Sikand and Katju 1994).

In many instances of conversions in the last few months, the neo-converts have stressed that they never left the Hindu religion. This is because they never gave up one or the other religion. They simultaneously adhered to the tenets of both religious faiths – following what one might call a “dual religiosity”. Practising such religiosity implies that these communities have not been trapped by rigidities of religious identity. It also implies that in everyday life this duality has helped in carrying on with practical matters.

Second, the groups targeted for reconversions are economically hard-up and often destitute. Rarely do we see the privileged, well-to-do social groups converting to a religion of their choice for spiritual solace. For the poor, however, conversion is often a strategy for securing welfare benefits and job or perhaps to deflect active social discriminations, as the recent conversions in Agra district, where a community of poor ragpickers became the target of reconversions, illustrates so well (BBC News India 2014 and Mishra 2014). They were promised ration cards, Aadhaar cards and school admission for their children for going through the ghar wapsi rituals. It is also easier to intimidate the poor and marginalised into “coming back home”; the fear factor was clearly evident in the conversions at Agra where the whole area where ghar wapsi was performed was enveloped in fear.

This bring us to the third feature of ghar wapsi. These VHP-organised programmes are almost always group conversions and not about individuals making choices (Sikand and Katju 1994). Those on the social margins of the Hindu caste-system moved out of its fold to escape caste-oppression. It were not just economic or material factors, if at all, which motivated them but also the desire for a life of dignity and the hope of social equality. In other words, oppressed groups moved out of the Hindu fold to escape economic and social depravity. Historically, the Hindu nationalist organisations have focused on these very groups for ghar wapsi.

The Sangh leadership admits that caste oppression made these oppressed sections move to different religions. However, as the experience of the past many decades suggests that rather than address the caste issue, it has attempted to bring them “back” mainly through the promise of material gratification. The endogamous cohesiveness of jati groups makes group conversions that much more possible. Also, preoccupation with numbers has made the VHP focus on groups rather than individuals. The spectacle that a group conversion creates makes it far more attractive than stray conversions of individuals here and there.

Where Is ‘Religion’?

It is revealing to ask: where does religion stand in the drive for ghar wapsi? For the Sangh Parivar conversion to Hinduism is about display of community strength in their imaginary competition for power with other religious communities. In other words, for the Hindutva ideologues converting people to Hindu dharma and making a public display, it is not about Hindu dharmik enlightenment or spiritual development but rather, it is about a show of strength – at least this is what the evidence suggests. On the other hand, for those who are rounded up for ghar wapsi, the motivating factor is the promise of everyday material well-being. They agree to convert for jobs, medical facilities, housing, etc, and not because they find the values or devotional practices of the Hindu religion attractive. In fact, in their lives of everyday drudgery, they should not be expected to compare the relative spiritual merits of diverse belief systems and make choices based on these comparisons. Conversion for the poor and oppressed then is not about religion but about getting better access to resources and rights – and religion is a utilitarian route to such an option. If not these, then the reason for conversion by the vulnerable sections is intimidation; in the given political context in the country this is possible perhaps only by the workers of the Sangh Parivar. The weak and vulnerable have no choice but to convert in the face of threats and intimidation used by VHP, etc. The point is – religion or religious values are again absent in this whole exercise of ghar wapsi except as a facade.

It is necessary to pose the following questions to the RSS and its affiliates (those running the Government of India and those organising these conversion drives): If the whole logic of “reconversions” is to bring back the lower castes who earlier moved out of the Hindu fold to escape social oppression and humiliation, does it not make more sense to work towards improving their economic well-being and dignity; to work towards loosening the hierarchies and stratifications that blight their daily lives at the local level, rather than subjecting them to a set of rituals under the garb of ghar wapsi and then abandoning them to the same fate of poverty and humiliation? Moreover, if the country has voted the BJP, the electoral front of the Sangh Parivar, to power with such a strong majority, what is this insecurity about numbers and power which bothers them even now?

Manjari Katju (mkatju@gmail.com) teaches Political Science at the University of Hyderabad.


1 “Vishva Hindu Parishad – Dharma Prasar Yojana” (Vishva Hindu Parishad – Dharma propagation programme), Vanavasi Kalyan Kendra, Sonbhadra (UP), Vishva Hindu Parishad publication, 1992: 112.

2 Ibid, p 111.

3 Ibid, p 112.

4 Bhavdeep Kang et al (1999) report that Budhra Dukhbadia of Subir village who became a Christian 25 years ago received threats from the village headman and his associates to become a Hindu.

5 See interview with Surendra Jain of the Bajrang Dal, Outlook, 8 February 1999, p 20.


BBC News India (2014): “Indian Agra Muslims Fear Conversions to Hinduism”, 11 December, seen at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-30429118, accessed on 24 December.

Kang, Bhavdeep et al (1999): “Pilgrim’s Progress Revisited”, Outlook, 25 January, p 22.

Mumbai Mirror (2014): “Won’t Let Hindus Decline in India: Togadia”, 23 December, p 13.

Mishra, Ishita (2014): “RSS’ Re-converts’ 200 Agra Muslims, Says More in Line”, The Times of India, 9 December, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/agra/RSS-re-converts-200-Agra-Mu... 338.cms, accessed on 24 December.

Sikand, Yoginder and Manjari Katju (1994): “Mass Conversions to Hinduism among Indian Muslims”, Economic & Political Weekly, XXIX (34): 2214-19.

Tarte, Narayan Rao (1989-90): “Vishva Hindu Parishad Ki Kalpana” (Formation of Vishva Hindu Parishad), Hindu Vishva, Silver Jubilee Issue, 14-15 (Hindi edition).

Venkatesan, V (1999): “Communalism: A Hate Campaign in Gujarat”, Frontline, 16-29 January, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl16 02/ 16021070.htm, accessed on 26 December 2014.