To become a Christian you get baptised; to become a Muslim you don't even have to visit a mosque, you can recite the kalima even under a tree. But how do you become a Hindu? Says Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's director-general S. Ramakrishnan, "I don't think there is any mechanism for conversion to Hinduism. Hindus never converted anybody." Other Hinduism spokespersons are equally stumped by the question: how does a non-Hindu become a Hindu? And what would be her caste/sub-caste?
According to R. Ramagopalan of the Hindu Munnani, a right-wing group founded after the mass conversion of Dalits at Meenakshipuram in 1981, "You just have to practice the Hindu way of life. You don't need a formal entry." He dodges the caste aspect: "That's a hypothetical question." Like the vhp and other Sangh parivar outfits, Hindu Munnani concentrates on shuddhi ceremonies that "re-convert those who strayed away". Their premise: all those born in "Bharatvarsha" are already Hindu "since 5,000 years".
But Swami Agnivesh, working president of the world council of Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dayanand in 1875, says: "There is nothing called Hinduism. It is not a religion at all. There is something called the Vedic faith that Arya Samaj practices." Not recognising jati identity, the Samaj acknowledges the varna system, "admission to which is not based on birth but achievements". Says Agnivesh, "I don't even insist on shuddhi these days. It is derogatory to imply someone is impure."
But even after an Arya Samaj conversion, caste stays. Says S. Ashok Kumar, 44, a district judge in Tamil Nadu who converted from Christianity to Hinduism via Arya Samaj in 1971, "You can change your religion, but never caste. Even if you are an nth generation Christian or Muslim, you have to have a caste identity when you revert to Hinduism. Having a Dalit background, though Arya Samaj bestowed on me the Brahmin thread, I had to return as a scheduled caste." The Puri Shankaracharya had also said that (re)converts won't be accepted as 'real Hindus' and announced separate 'Swastik temples' for them.
Some also contest the very claim of Hinduism's majoritarian character. Says V.T. Rajshekar, editor, Dalit Voice, "The biggest fraud of conversion was perpetrated by the state. Article 25 of the Constitution swallowed up Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains as Hindus. Hindus would not be a majority if these communities are de-listed."
Most times, the law approves the hierarchies that operate in civil society. Says Kumar, "The apex court judgements in the Kailash Shankar case, 1984, and Mohan Rao case, 1971, clearly state that once a person converts to Hinduism, his caste reappears." So, you're not a Hindu if you don't have caste. You're born a Hindu or you die one. Becoming one isn't easy.