Kerala conversions: Is Ghar wapsi in state part of BJP’s plan of Hindu consolidation?

What’s the significance of the version of Ghar wapsi organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Kerala, in which 35 Dalit Christians became Hindus on Monday? Is it an one-off event that exploited the desperation of Dalit Christians to get the benefits of Scheduled Castes, or is it part of a plan of the Sangh Parivar to consolidate Hindus in the state?

It’s been public knowledge that Dalit Christians are a helpless lot because they, despite their caste, have been denied reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. Reportedly, this was the stated motive - viz, regaining the SC benefits - of one of the converts on Sunday. She is desperate to change her children’s religion in official records from Christian to Hindu.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This has been a huge challenge for Dalits who converted into Christianity, mostly in the middle of the nineteenth century. Other than possible material inducements and the power of "communication" by missionaries, what had compelled the dalits to convert was their desperation to escape untouchability practised by the upper castes. Most of the conversions in the mid-nineteenth century were into the Anglican Church so much so that in 1947 they constituted more than half of the Travancore and Cochin diocese of the Church of South India.

They thought by jumping ship, they could get rid of their caste burden and achieve social mobility. Unfortunately, what awaited them as Christians was the same neglect, social marginalisation and upper caste domination. The Syrian Christians, who proudly trace their genealogy to upper caste Hindus, continued to treat them as Dalits, and in many places even resented their attending their churches.

This social backwardness has been well established. The Kumara Pillai Committee Report in 1965 noted that it was “convinced that in practice converts to Christianity from Scheduled Castes are treated as socially backward."

“Christians in Kerala are divided ... into various ethnic groups on the basis of their caste background... even after conversion, the lower caste converts continue to be treated as Harijans by all sections of society, including the Syrian Christians... In the presence of rich Syrian Christians the Harijan Christians had to remove their headress... It was found that the Syrian and Pulaya members of the same church conduct religious rituals separately in separate buildings... Thus lower caste converts to a very egalitarian religion like Christianity, ever anxious to expand its membership, even after generations were not able to efface the effect of their caste background,” said the Mandal Commission Report in 1980.

The worst however was their loss of government benefits such as reservation in education and jobs. The contradiction was so laughable that while some members of the same family, who remained Hindus, enjoyed reservation, those who converted to Christianity had none of the benefits. This was a gross social inequality because the converts had gained nothing in terms of backwardness, while they lost their most important means of social mobility, namely reservation in education and jobs.

The Dalit Christians, therefore, have been demanding that they too should be given the benefits of reservation, but to no avail. For many, changing their religion to Hindu, had been a lifelong, but futile, struggle.

Not surprisingly, the BJP’s stand has been against reservation for Dalit Christians. The party wanted the Ranganathan Mishra Commission report, which had recommended inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims to be given reservation, to be discontinued. The Kerala BJP president V Muraleedharan had demanded discontinuation of the report as “it would jeopardise the interests of the scheduled castes.”

What makes the Ghar wapsi in Kerala interesting is the ongoing efforts of the BJP to consolidate Hindus in the state. In September, the party had joined hands with the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS), an organisation of Dalits, to celebrate the 152 birth anniversary of Dalit reformist leader Ayyankali in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the event and lauded the efforts of Ayyankali. He said it was unfortunate that for a variety of reasons people like him are forgotten.

An year earlier, In April last year, Modi had visited the Sivagiri Ashram in Kerala, which is a centre of considerable socio-political and spiritual influence of Ezhavas, the most significant OBC in the state. He said that the social reforms triggered by spiritual leaders such as Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had laid the foundation for the freedom struggle and contributed to the country’s enduring culture.“By linking social reforms to spirituality, they were able to achieve social transformation,” Modi said.

What’s more, there were also efforts to bring together SNDP, the organisation that represents for the interests of the Ezhavas, and the NSS of the Nairs, which are otherwise pitted against each other. At one stage, there was visible bonhomie between the leaders of the two organisations and they seemed to tilt towards the BJP.

With the political affinity of people strongly polarised between the Congress (and its allies) and the Communists, there is very limited political space that the BJP can harness. Its only option to gain a foothold is to consolidate the Hindu sentiments. The grassroots strength of the RSS and a grand Hindu alliance seem to the strategy of the BJP. Therefore, more reports of “Ghar Vapsi” from the state in the coming days will not be surprising.

Updated Date: Dec 22, 2014 16:39 PM

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