While religious conversions to Christianity and Islam have been much debated in India, attacks on minorities, instances of conversions to Sanatana Dharma or Ghar Wapsi in recent years have been frequent too.
Purifying The Christians On Burning Coal
Earlier in March this year, over 100 Adivasis allegedly converted to Sanatana from Christianity during a conversion programme, dubbed Ghar Wapsi by the right-wing bandwagon of RSS-VHP, according to sources. In Jharkhand’s Sahibganj district, about 70 Christian families, including over 40 men and 60 women, walked on burning coal to purify themselves and be accepted into Sanatana. The programme was organised by the district president of Giri Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, Sheetal Baba. The men and women were first made to walk on the burning charcoal during Jheel Pooja in Sindri village, Barhet block, following which their feet were washed as they were accepted into Sanatana upon "returning home" (ghar wapsi) at Sheetal Baba’s residential dhaam.
When enquired about this episode by Outlook, where Adivasi Christians had to walk on burning coal for purification, the national spokesperson for VHP, Vinod Bansal refused to believe any such incident. Bansal argues that it is not believable since this is not how the Sangh Parivar affiliated organizations, which he admits there is a plethora of, operate and conduct ghar wapsi. “No Hindu would do something of this sort, this kind of work,” he says, adding that such false and baseless narratives are often planted for one or the other reason.
The men and women were first made to walk on the burning charcoal during Jheel Pooja in Sindri village, Barhet block, following which their feet were washed as they were accepted into Sanatana upon "returning home" (ghar wapsi) at Sheetal Baba’s residential dhaam. (2/2) #adivasi pic.twitter.com/OmzCkeeP9v— Shreya Basak (@ShreyaBasak5) March 14, 2023
A resident of the region, Sajan Marandi (name changed) told Outlook that such conversions are an annual event in the area. Each year, a few days before Holi, BJP-RSS-Bajrang Dal-backed ghar wapsi programmes are conducted here, and the news only hit headlines because the numbers were much higher this time. The local media also did not report on the conversions but celebrated the numbers of successful ghar wapsi from Christianity.
Adivasi and Santhali communities have for generations followed the tradition of Ojha Gurus or spiritual leaders (community doctors/healers). The Ojha gurus and their practices in past years have transformed into what a Pandit or a religious leader does. Just as masses are organized by churches every week, these religious gurus now organize weekly poojas and kirtans.
Marandi also asked if Adivasis were to leave Christianity, why did they do it in the presence of Hindu leaders and not among Saanthal chieftains and leaders? "How can a Santhali be said to make ghar wapsi if they are not really coming to their home culture but to a culture being propagated and promoted under a well-planned BJP-Sangh machinery to upturn vote bank in Adivasi regions."
Ghar Wapsi Of Adivasis Or Vanvasis?
While the right wing keeps ruing and alleging Christian missionaries of tempting and trapping innocent Adivasis with commodities, money, and other offers, retired police officer Haripad Hansda felicitated the women with sarees and men with dhotis who converted to Sanatana Dharma.
A member of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, on account of anonymity, responds to the question of conversions saying that a case of religious conversion is only when a person is converting to any religion other than Sanatana. "These conversions are done under the influence and manipulation of missionaries. There is not a single Christian who has adopted Christianity after reading the Bible." He adds that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram works in the field of education, sports, safeguarding culture, and women, on the grassroots level. "We do not engage directly into ghar wapsi, however, our work often has an effect on the communities who volunteer for ghar wapsi." Referring to the Vanvasi Ashram in Narela that inhabits Adivasi students from different states of the country including the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, and Nagaland, he says, "There was earlier no maahaul (environment) for education in the northeast. The region was earlier inflicted with terrorism, which has now comparatively declined."
The question raised by local Adivasis and Christians is why are Adivasi conversion to Sanatana seen as a fear or ghar wapsi when the Adivsi community has long been fighting for a Sarna code and to be acknowledged as an independent religion and community, away from the ambit of Hinduism. However, Adivasis' reclamation of their own cultural and religious practices stands as the biggest challenge to the Hindutva claims of one nation, one religion. Section 2(2) of the Hindu Succession Act lays out the foundation of the legal aspect of this argument by excluding its operation on the STs. Furthermore, the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, and the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 are also not applicable to the STs, unless extended by the central government or otherwise directed.
The BJP-VHP-RSS-Banjrang Dal-Vanvasi Ashrams have also refrained from using the term Adivasi for indigenous communities and rather address them as Janjatis or Vanvasis. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram Delhi member, while interacting with Outlook says that the indigenous communities in India are different from all other indigenous communities across the world. "The Ramayana and Mahabharata are proof to it that we have co-existed. We come from the same culture," he added.
Former BJP district president, Sanjay Gupta was among the organisers of the Ghar Wapsi programme which he shares has been going on for 30 years in the Sahibganj district. It was due to political limitations that the news and work regarding conversions into Sanatana couldn't be promoted earlier. But now given the "Modi yug" in the country, we can openly work and promote ghar wapsi. Gupta told Outlook such events require logistics and funds, which he helps the other organisers with. "I would help with vehicle and food arrangements, or any other logistics that are required. If we get sufficient funds, we will do much bigger work for ghar wapsi."
Gupta also told Outlook that villagers from different villages in the Barhet block were made part of this conversion. "Those who converted to Christianity only a few years ago on false promises were brought back." He adds that morning Shakhas (meetings) by RSS were organised in the distant regions of these villages and the Adivasis were counselled to convert to Hinduism.