'Ghar wapsi' has become a bad phrase despite Article 25 guaranteeing it

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less”, says Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Caroll's Through the looking Glass.

To which Alice asks, "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Humpty Dumpty's reply: "The question is which is to be the master, that's all."

It speaks much for the agenda-setting powers of the Lutyens elite and large segments of the mainstream English media, and the poor communications ability of its bete noire, the Sangh parivar, that words uttered by the latter can be forced to mean what the former chooses it to mean.

Nothing illustrates this point more than the term ghar wapsi – a term used by the RSS and its ideological fronts as code for converting non-Hindus to Hinduism. Ghar wapsi is something the RSS is committed to, as indicated by the recent meeting of its top body, the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha. It has now relabelled it as dharma jagran (religious awakening), which, The Indian Express informs us, is the same as ghar wapsi.

However, in Indian “secular” discourse, the term is used not to describe a religious conversion activity – which every liberal is keen to defend, including President Barack Obama, who gave us a lecture on it in January - but as code for communalism with negative connotations.

Thus, when a nun gets raped in Ranaghat in West Bengal, a state minister happily attributes it to “ghar wapsi”. This is how Bengal Minister Firhad Hakim linked the rape to ghar wapsi. "Religious intolerance in the name of ghar wapsi is at work, sometimes in Odisha and sometimes in Bengal. This may be one of the reasons (for the rape of a 71-year-old nun).

Even someone more sensible than Mamata Banerjee’s ministers, former Punjab DGP Julio Ribeiro, thinks ghar wapsi is something negative. In a poignant article in The Indian Express, where Ribeiro shared the anguish of the Christian community over some toxic statements from the Sangh, Ribeiro wrote: “Ghar wapsi, the declaration of Christmas as ‘Good Governance Day’, the attack on Christian churches and schools in Delhi, all (have) added to a sense of siege that now afflicts these peaceful people.”

While one can certainly agree with some of his points, the inclusion of the term ghar wapsi in the same category as attacks on churches is questionable, especially when the “secular” consensus is in favour of freedom to preach and propagate a religion of your choice.

 Ghar wapsi has become a bad phrase despite Article 25 guaranteeing it

Chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

This shows how the Sangh has lost control of the meaning of its own branded phrase – and, in the process, the topic itself. The crass way in which some of the practitioners have boasted about "ghar wapsi" may have something to do with it, but so has the pretense that it is not a conversion programme.

What is ghar wapsi, really? It is essentially a Hindu effort to convert (or reconvert) people from other faiths – a freedom guaranteed to everybody under article 25 of the constitution.

However, the Sangh does not want to call a spade a spade – an issue any Hindu will understand, but the secularists choose to misunderstand deliberately.

Since Hinduism believes that one can be a Hindu only by birth, “ghar wapsi” is essentially a way of getting around this doctrinal ban on seeking converts. By pretending that it is only bringing back former Hindus back to the fold, the Sangh is pretending that it is not running a conversion programme, but merely advocating a return to old religious roots.

The problem with the Sangh’s terminology is that there cannot be anyone called an original Hindu who can automatically become Hindu again without active conversion. Once someone is identified as Muslim or Christian, the only way he or she can become Hindu again is by conversion. At best, one can call the return of a recent convert to the Hindu fold as ghar wapsi, since the conversion and reconversion happened within one lifetime. All other conversions have to be called conversions.

However, one need not quarrel with the term ghar wapsi itself. If that is how the Sangh chooses to call it, so be it. A conversion programme called by any other name would still be a conversion programme.

The Sangh is losing the argument and the meaning embedded in the term ‘ghar wapsi’ because it has wrongly chosen to call for a ban on religious conversions. There can be no ban on conversions in a liberal society – unless the reasons are related to coercion or fraud.

By insisting on a ban, the Sangh’s own conversion programme can be deliberately misinterpreted by its enemies as amounting to coercion and fraud.

It is time the Sangh started taking advantage of the constitutional guarantee under article 25 and openly acknowledge that it wants to convert more Indians (and presumably foreigners) to Hinduism. When the Pope can make calls for the “evangelisation” of Asia and Africa, and still not be branded communal, why is the RSS courting a bad name by pretending it is not into conversions? There is nothing wrong in the RSS wanting to convert people to Hinduism.

It is time the RSS reclaimed the meaning of the term ghar wapsi. In the hands of its rivals, the phrase has been mangled out of shape.

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2015 07:54:16 IST