I was scribbling notes for a seminar on the occasion of Maulana Azad’s birthday in February when my mind made an extraordinary connection with a historic event I was witness to.
In February 1981, an obscure village of Meenakashipuram, about 15 kms from Tenkasi, shot into prominence because 150 low caste Hindus converted to Islam. I was then with the Indian Express in Chennai.
Having been trained in my alma mater, The Statesman, to write features of such balance as not to appear to be taking sides, I proceeded to balance the argument on Meenakshipuram too. Hindus must do this and Muslims must do that and so on.
The next morning, I found myself in the eye of a storm. Irathavan Mahadevan, executive director and a brilliant scholar on the Indus valley script, came running down from his office upstairs, frothing at the mouth. Every now and then, he would leap a few inches and find his feet again. He was speechless with anger. I should have condemned the conversions, he stuttered, and chastised the Muslim groups responsible for it.
In the Express Estates, Ram Nath Goenka was bringing down the plaster from the ceiling. “Hindu kahaan jaaye? Hindu kahaan jaaye?” (Where should the Hindu go?) He shook with rage: “Tum to Makka chale jaao, Hindu kahaan jaaye?” (You can go to Mecca, but where should the Hindu go?)
K Sambandam, the solitary non Brahmin member of the editorial team, spread out Dravida newspapers on my desk to prove that the “balance” in my editorial also had a clientele among the two Dravida parties. But I had learnt the hard way that it was wiser to steer clear of intra Hindu arguments. Had I learnt the right lesson?
Meenakshipuram happened when the communal cauldron was bubbling over on account of other factors – the insurgency in Punjab, Ziaul Haq’s Nizam-e-Mustafa in Pakistan, social imbalance caused by the petro dollar remittances from Gulf, the early appearance of garish Dubai houses in Kerala. Conversions only provided the ignition.
[quote]Communalism, once triggered, picks up a life of its own[/quote]
The 80s were marked by a spate of riots in Moradabad, Aligarh, Maliana, Bhagalpur, climaxing in the Shilanyas or the foundation laying ceremony for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and finally the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992. Communalism, once triggered, picks up a life of its own particularly in the context of electoral politics.
Meenaskshipuram, however, remains unique in the sense that no Muslim conversion on this scale had happened since Independence, nor did one after 1981. Was it financed by Dubai remittances? What did occur subsequently was something quite different: a spate of attacks on Christian missionaries. These alerted leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee about a rash of Christian conversions in the tribal areas of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. Vajpayee called for a national debate on conversions. KN Govindacharya of the RSS dedicated himself to reclaiming those who had “strayed” out of the Hindu fold.
When a similar situation arose in the first decade of Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited his Education Minister, Maulana Azad to tackle the complicated situation.
What happened was this. During a debate in the Lok Sabha on foreign Christian missionaries, Home Minister, Kailashnath Katju said: “If missionaries come to India only for evangelical work, then I commend to them the thought that they stop coming here.” The statement created a furore among Christian missionaries.
Maulana Azad wrote a letter to Cardinal Valerian Gracias in Mumbai.
“Let me assure you that we are fully aware of the outstanding work foreign missionaries have done over the past 150 years in education and other humanitarian fields. For years, the East India Company was opposed to imparting education to Indians. It was a missionary society which opened the first school and college to impart modern education to Indians. After India’s independence, many missionary societies asked us if they would be allowed to continue their work and we encouraged them to continue the good work.”
“The acceptable way for religious conversion is simple: if an adult reflects on the faith he has been born into and feels intellectually compelled to adopt another faith, he has all the protection in the Constitution to exercise his free choice. This kind of conversion is a function of proper balance between the heart and the mind.”
The Indian Constitution gives the right to every individual to preach his particular faith and the recipients of such preaching have every right to change their faith.
“But there is another method of conversion: for social reasons or for a common cause, a large group of people makes up its mind to defect from one religion to another. If each individual of this group were asked to explain why he left the faith of his forebears, I am certain he will not be able to advance a reason persuasive enough that such a person has actually reflected on the question of religion and truth. On most occasions such groups are composed of people who have no education, people who are singularly incapable of making up their minds on issues that inform a matter as serious a religious belief.” An elitist view?
But mass conversions, according to the Maulana, “cannot be called religious conversions. Instead of conversion this sort of a shift should be called by some other name. The Constituent Assembly called it “mass conversions”.
The Maulana settled the debate two generations ago. How would his reasoning be received by both the sides today?
In 2002, Jayalalitha passed the Tamilnadu Prohibition of Forcible conversion of Religion Act. K Karuanidhi opposed it tooth and nail.
“Forcible conversion?” Frowned Madar Sahib, who changed his faith when he was 40. “Yes, I was forced by the upper caste Hindus to run away from a system that treated me like a street dog?” According to the Maulana, Madar Sahib “defected” from an unfair system. It was not religious conversion.
Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Marxism are all linear proselytizing systems. There is a problem when they come into contact with a circular system which does not convert.
“Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Marxism are all linear proselytizing systems. There is a problem when they come into contact with a circular system which does not convert.”
Hinduism is not a ‘circular system’ as perhaps the author derogatorily proposes.
It is a philosophy that does not discriminate. It is a philosophy that doesn’t claim God to itself. In fact, Hindus believe that god doesn NOT pick favorites. A concept fundamentally at odds with the beliefs of the “linear” or may I say “one-dimensional” Abrahamanic religions, especially Islam. That one is somehow “closer” to god, and that another is ‘condemned to hell’ or needs to be saved to get virgins in heaven is fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism.
I got no problem with anyone wanting to practice any religion they want. Just don’t try to “convert’ someone else, especially by coersion. It is fundamentally anti God, and you don’t score any brownie points with God.
I find it interesting that a nation of a billion Hindu’s seemed to be threatened by a few conversions. Even more interesting that they (the right wing Hindu’s) believe that a few conversions will do what a thousand years of Muslim rule and two hundred years of Company rule could not – transform India into a non-Hindu country.
dude ppl of pakistan nd bangladesh where hindus who were convertrd to islam forcibly, so dnt talk that india will never lose its hindu status, pakistan nd bangladesh are such examples
The writer claims that Azad settled the issue, but earlier he also allows that Azad’s views could be considered elitist. That’s like having your biryani and eating it too.
The sad fact is that, thanks to the Arya Samaj movement, presently even Hinduism is a converting religion.
All religions originated from conversion.Before Judaism, Christianity
and Islam there was a universal polytheistic religion worshipping the
idols and offering sacrifices to please the deity. Gradually,
starting with Jewish prophets originated the concept of
one God(Judaism and Islam) and Godhead(trinity in Christianity).
as a source of all moral values including mercy, forgiveness
and justice. In addition the concept of immortality of soul
and life after death, judgment by GOD motivated the
followers to lead life of virtues and piety. There is no
comparable philosophy in polytheistic religions. According
to Edward Gibbon, historian of decline and fall of Rome,
the virtuous life of Christians, promise of better life after
death to all following religious commands, forgiveness for
sins and welcome of poor and downtrodden as equal for
GOD’s mercy contributed to the replacement of polytheism
with monotheism. Hinduism as the only polytheistic religion
offer no equality for those living a life of piety, no concept of
justice and confusing concept of transmigration of soul
inhabiting the body of good or bad person( who is deciding) no forgiveness and a chance to transform oneself from sinner to saint.
Hindus always attribute conversion to the force. There are
no examples of use of force on a large scale to convert
polytheists to either Christianity or Islam. Both religions
have a message that resonate with the people. This is the
reason that there hardly any polytheists left in the world
one time full of them except in India.
You obviously have no clue about history and as a historian this bothers me a great deal. Let me enlighten you…not all religions arose because of conversion…Hinduism most certainly did not…mainly because it was not an organised religion…Hinduism is effectively an amalgamation of multiple faiths that happened over hundreds of years…the religion is noted globally for being a tolerant religion…yes, it has it’s flaws but which religion does not…furthermore it could be argued that the caste system is a South Asian problem rather than a Hindu problem…if the Hindus have Brahmins, Shudras, Kshatriyas etc, the Muslims also have Ashrafs, Ajlafs and Arzals…in Pakistan as well as India, Arzals are treated as venom…and please note, they are treated like this not by Hindus but by their fellow Muslims…so before we point fingers at others, let’s take a look at ourselves first. Just because a section of the Hindu community participates in discriminatory practices does not mean all Hindus are bad. When we Muslims hear that all Muslims are terrorists, we do not like it right? The same way Hindus don’t like it when the community as a whole is degraded like this. Also, can you imagine us in Pakistan discussing the conversion of even debating conversion to another religion…what a hue and cry there would be…there would be bloodshed for sure…India is certainly at least 50 years ahead of us in their mindset.
And regarding your comments on conversions by force – complete nonsense….there are several examples of forced conversions by christians as well as Muslims…some of these are cited below: –
As a historian, one cannot deny the fact that Christianity and to perhaps a greater degree Islam spread through violence, not love as propogated by our Mullahs. Look the point is what has happened has happened…let’s at least move ahead in the right direction now…with time religion has to evolve.
I hope you understand the reality of conversion and the bad blood it creates for years…and please do not spread untrue information.
With regards to the author…I still don’t know what the purpose of his his article his or what he is trying to get at…
Conversion to Islam is fine for the author. But what about conversion from Islam..?
When you sign a contract then you have to be told and you have to know what happens when you decide to leave this contract later.
How does islam treat ex-muslims? How many remain in islam voluntarily?
Does islam allow non-muslims to practise missionary activity among muslims?
Conversions can be called voluntary only when no bribes, privileges, sexual extras, power games, money or other gifts, intimidations, slander against others, false promises (later unfulfilled for generations) etc. play any role.
Have conversions to islam ever been free of these factors?
Islam has no caste/class system, no discriminations?
Muslims can never be honest since they stand under the compulsion to glorify/defend islam. We can never expect a muslim to be critical of what islam is or has done.
Is islam not a totalitarian, arab-imperialist ideology that makes false promises since 1400 years?
Let aside forced conversions…
what about conversions through deceit? Briberies? Intimidations?
Can a monotheistic or atheistic ideology be as accommodating, pluralistic and tolerant as a polytheistic one?
Must non-arabs bow down to a 7th century totalitarian-monotheistic, arabic-hegemonial god-concept?
How many non-arabs have become pseudo-arabs and bootlickers of arabs due to islam? How many non-arabs identities and self-respects have been destroyed by islam?
Muslims have always avoided this self-criticism, this honesty.
How do muslims treat non-muslim minorities?
How does kuran treat non-believers?
Islam satisfies many criteria of fascism – more an any other religion.
When people convert due to sufferings or gifts then that is not voluntary conversion.
Islam is a mission. All Muslim are enjoined upon to fulfill the mission. The day when the mission is completed (as promised in the scripture) all controversies and conflicts will come to an end. Will the mission be completed is the dilemma that is haunting Muslims all over the world. Arab Spring is the new face of this dilemma.