The “homecoming” or conversion of nearly 57 Muslim families living in slums in Agra has sparked off a controversy, which has once again put the Central government on the defensive, since the action was initiated by an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The converted persons are alleging that they were made to change their religion through deceitful methods. Some Sangh functionaries are now claiming that similar “homecomings”, which are a part of a regular programme of the RSS, would be organised next in Aligarh. It was but natural that there was an uproar in Parliament over the matter and leaders of the Samajwadi Party whose government rules Uttar Pradesh have declared that cases would be registered against the guilty persons.
The incident comes close on the heels of an incendiary speech by Niranjan Jyoti, a Union Minister at the Centre who had recently used abusive and unacceptable language to criticise the opponents of the BJP by describing them as illegitimate children who were pitted in an electoral battle with children of Lord Rama. The conversions like her speech have contributed in vitiating the atmosphere of harmony. The actions are being construed by some as a deliberate attempt by the Sangh Parivar to polarise society on religious line, though for the government the controversy would harm its stated objective of providing good governance and development for all sections of society.
The fundamentalist Hindu groups have now been also agitating for a long time for what they sometimes call “love jihad” by Muslim boys who entice Hindu girls and make them convert to Islam after marrying them. The love “jihad” case of a Meerut girl, who was propped up by some interested parties to publicly claim that she had been forcibly converted to Islam, boomeranged when she admitted that she had gone with her Muslim friend on her own and there was no force involved. Nevertheless, the political climate of western UP remained surcharged and all kinds of fundamentalists had a field day.
The short point is that conversion is the fundamental right of any citizen of this country if it is voluntary and without any stress or inducement. No organisation should have any objections if a citizen decides to change his/her religion on his or her own accord. However, in the event of any kind of coercion, a criminal case can be made out against those forcing their will on anybody. There have been instances when film stars have used conversion to give legitimacy to their relationship. Well known actors Dharmendra and Hema Malini, who are now members of the BJP, had got married following conversion to Islam, which permits a man to have more than one wife. Dharmendra was already married and thus the only way he could escape being charged under adultery was to take recourse to conversion since he was madly in love with the Dream Girl of yesteryears. Similarly, when former Indian cricket captain Mansur Ali Khan, the erstwhile Nawab of Pataudi, married top actor Sharmila Tagore, she chose to change her religion in order to go in for the nikaah as per Islamic traditions. There was no hue and cry as there was no force involved and the action was voluntary.
But in the Agra case, it is evident that those who converted are not happy and feel cheated. This is something which is unacceptable. Equally condemnable are efforts of some Muslim and Christian organisations to forcibly convert people of other faiths. The Sangh Parivar has been targeting Christian missionaries and accusing them of offering inducements to tribals and others to change their faith. While it may be true that missionaries do propagate their religion and in some instances use over persuasive efforts to convert ignorant people to their own religion, they on many occasions express their concern for the downtrodden and the oppressed through actions.
For instance, the missionaries choose the most backward areas where government, whose duty it is to provide relief, education, medical facilities and betterment has failed to perform its duties. They try to impart education and improve the overall living conditions and in the process influence the people to embrace Christianity. Whether this amounts to forcible conversion is a matter of debate, though hard-core Hindu elements in the Sangh Parivar find this outrageous and unforgivable, even if they themselves are unable to improve the quality of life of these downtrodden people.
A conversion of a unique kind is also taking place in cities like Delhi where “Bangladeshi Muslims” to escape deportation have taken up Hindu names and publicly worship Hindu deities during festivals. Many of the maids who work in group housing society flats in trans-Yamuna, for instance, have their origin in Bangladesh but are Hindus for all practical purposes now. But this has not made Sangh supporters happy. The problem of conversions is very complex and needs to be dealt with sensitively and with caution. Between us.