Conversion of religion: India (history)

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A history of conversion

The Times of India, December 21, 2014 Ronojoy Sen

What drove early Indians to embrace Islam, Christianity: Fear or political rule

Hindu right-wing organizations may have backed down on mass conversion programmes on Christmas Day , but the debate about conversions is not going to go away in a hurry . It is commonly held that Islam and Christianity , the religions of the rulers across India for several centuries, were pushed down the throat of Hindus and tribals.

Historian Richard Eaton has, however, highlighted some of the fallacies, particularly with regard to Islam. The “geography of conversions” in the Indian subcontinent, according to him, reveals an inverse relationship between the degree of Muslim political penetration and the degree of conversion to Islam. So the heaviest conversions occurred in Punjab and Bengal, which were on the fringes of the Indo-Muslim empires, and much less in the north Indian heartland. Eaton argues that three dominant theories — conversion by sword, for political and instrumental reasons and mass lower caste conversions — don’t stack up. Instead, he says, conversion was a gradual process whereby “preliterate peoples on the ecological and political frontier of an expanding agrarian society became absorbed into the religious ideology of that society”.

As with conversions to Islam, the story with Christianity is hardly straightforward. It is often forgotten that Christianity and missionary conversions existed in India long before the British came. Their origins in India go back to the first century of the Common Era. However, the public discourse on conversion in independent India has been influenced by the acrimonious debate on conversion during the colonial period.

Though Christian missionaries pressed the colonial state for an unfettered right to propagate their religion, missionaries were allowed to function only from 1813 and with restrictions till 1833. Following the 1857 uprising, the colonial state decided to follow a policy of religious neutrality as spelled out in Queen Victoria’s proclamation in 1858. However, converts to Christianity could avail of the benefits of the laws of marriage and succession enacted by the British. The legislation that was perhaps the most controversial and raised fears of large-scale conversions among certain Hindus was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act, 1850 which said that the right of inheritance would not be affected by renouncing a particular religion or loss of caste status.

The ghar wapsi or reconversion programmes, being organized by various Hindu outfits, is not a new phenomenon and can be traced back to the “shuddhi” (purification) movements begun by the Arya Samaj in the late 19th century. Though initially the Samaj targeted reconversion from Islam and Christianity, under Swami Shraddhananda the aim shifted to upgrading the status of untouchables within Hinduism.

Mahatma Gandhi too had a dim view on conversion and his debates with Christian missionaries are well known. He had stated in an article in Young India in 1931: “India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.” But it would be a mistake to club Gandhi with the Hindu nationalists on the matter of conversion. Rudolf Heredia, author of Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India, says Gandhi was “all for an atmaparivartan, a change of heart, but not for a dharmantar, a change of religious tradition. He was a reformer, not a proselytizer”.

Conversion is often seen as a struggle for the souls and destinies of India’s poorest citizens.

The short shrift that the Supreme Court gave to the right to propagate religion in the 1977 Stanislaus judgment, enshrined in the Constitution, reflects this instrumental view of conversion. However, in many ways conversion is central to India's constitutional experiment with secularism. It is an irony that BR Ambedkar, whose antipathy towards religion and rituals is well known, registered his disaffection with the Indian state by converting to Buddhism in 1956.

As on many things Gandhi disagreed with Ambedkar and said in response to Ambedkar's decision to convert, “Religion is not like a house or a cloak which can be changed at will.“

However, in spite of his aversion to proselytizing Gandhi later said in 1940: “No legal hindrance can be put in the way of any Christian or of anybody preaching for the acceptance of his doctrine.“ This is something that most Hindu outfits, the anti-conversion Acts passed by various Indian states and the 1977 SC judgment have ignored.

Mercantile castes and conversion to Islam

AAKAR PATEL - Blame caste for Pakistan's violent streak, not faith Sep 25 2016 : The Times of India

The Patel does not do honour killing. The reason is that the Patel belongs to a wider mercantile culture imposed on Gujarat by the Jains. This culture stresses compromise and self-interest and pragmatism. There is no premium on `honour' through violence. We cannot honour ourselves. It is our society that honours us.

The conversion of Indians is the conversion of castes. One striking feature here is how few of our mercantile castes converted to Islam or to Christianity . The only major caste I know of which has done so is the Lohana of western Gujarat and Sindh. This same caste has produced individuals like Kotak, Premji, Advani, Jinnah and Khorakiwala.

Gujarat is fortunate that it has outstanding mercantile communities among its Sunnis and Shias. No other Indian state has this asset. Undivided Punjab did, but the Partition of Punjab by faith was also a partition of its castes.

In 1947, Pakistan lost the Khatri-Arora combine that today dominates Delhi's economy . My hypothesis is that the division of the Punjabi nation, a coherent state of 33 million people of all castes, in 1947 produced a Pakistani Punjab that was heavily weighted in favour of the peasant castes.

How do we know this? Because of the British census. In the 1881 Census, of the 1.7 million members of mercantile and trading communities in Punjab, only 4% -less than 75,000 men and women -were Muslim. This is because “conversion was negligible from the higher castes, such as Brahmins, Aroras, Khatris and Aggarwals“ (Census of India, 1931).

In his Ethnology of India, Sir George Campbell describes the Khatris in these words: “Besides monopolising the trade of the Panjab and the greater part of Afghanistan, and doing a good deal beyond those limits, they are in the Panjab the chief civil administrators and have almost all literate work in their hands...No village can get on without the Khatri who keeps the accounts, does the banking business and buys and sells the grain... They are the only Hindus known in Central Asia.“ In his work, Panjab Castes, Denzil Ibbetson writes that of the 419,139 Khatris in all, only “some 2,600 are Muslim“. The Arora, according to Ibbetson, “is the trader par excellence of the Jatki-speaking or south-western portion of Panjab, that is to say of the lower valleys of our five rivers; while higher up their courses he shares that position with the Khatri... He is found throughout Afghanistan and even Turkistan, and is the Hindu trader of those countries...“

The few Muslim merchants remaining in Punjab were called Khojas, who were either Khatri or Arora converts, and Parachas. The Khojas retained some Hindu features.In A Glossary of Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and NorthWest Frontier Province, H A Rose writes of the Muslim Parachas: “The Parachas know the Hindi character and nearly all of them keep accounts in Hindi like Hindus“, indicating that they were converts from mercantile castes.

See also

Conversion of religion: India (history)

Conversion of religion: India (legal aspects)

Love jihad

Panjab Castes: 04- Effect of conversion upon caste

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