12/12/2014 5:37 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

On The Dangerous Politics Of Conversion

India's constitution upholds the right to "freely profess, practice and propagate religion". Yet, in today's India, the issue of conversions has become a potent political instrument to buttress the Hindutva agenda. from my daily photo blog at" data-caption="This is Secret. I found her walking with her hooded ilk around the back streets of Mumbai. Usually when I see a cadre of the enshrouded, they are accompanied by Muslim man that is glaring at almost everyone. This time there seemed to be no alpha around, so I asked her for her name. She looked at me and smiled (I think) and then looked furtively around to see if anyone was watching. I got the distinct impression that since I was a white oddity that actually spoke to her that she wanted to talk, but then thought better of it and made a slight bow before gliding away.This comes from my portrait series here: from my daily photo blog at" data-credit="Stuck in Customs/Flickr">

The contrast, or some would say the hypocrisy, is striking.

In the United Nations, India successfully moved a resolution co-sponsored by 175 nations across regions and continents proposing the observance of International Yoga Day every June 21. India's Prime Minister Narender Modi in his address had first made the proposal to the UN two months ago. The UN recognised that yoga provides a "holistic approach to health and well-being." Yoga means to "to join" or "to yoke". An elated Prime Minister tweeted after the adoption of the resolution, " Yoga has the power to bring the entire humankind together!"

On the same day as the resolution was adopted, India's Parliament was sought to be "de-yoked" from India's secular constitution. The ruling regime of the Bharatiya Janta Party put up an unashamed defense in the Parliament of the fraudulent and forcible conversions of around 300 poor Muslims into the Hindu fold. This was done by right-wing Hindu organisations in the name of "ghar wapasi" or "homecoming", on the majoritarian assertion that all Indians have their origins in "Hindu civililisation" and was converted forcibly to Islam or Christianity. Their "reconversion" into the Hindu fold is therefore considered a "nationalist" duty aided by promises (bribes) of ration cards.

The debate on conversions is not new. The first laws against conversions starting from 1936 were adopted by the Princely States during British rule, the main objection being to what were considered proselytizing activities by Christian missionaries. In 1931, Gandhi had written, "how very nice it would be if missionaries rendered humanitarian services without the ulterior aim of conversions." Ambedkar, the architect of India's constitution, placed a counter and powerful view some years later. Born into a family of untouchables, Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism, rejecting Hinduism as he believed it was based on the hated caste system, which he was committed to eliminate.

India's constitution upholds the right to "freely profess, practice and propagate religion". Yet, in today's India, the issue of conversions has become a potent political instrument to buttress the Hindutva agenda. The narrative is of Hindus and Hinduism being under siege by believers of "foreign" religions, namely Islam and Christianity. It matters little to these fanatics that their assertions have no substance. For example, the successive censuses of the population has shown that there is only a negligible increase in the Christian population which is around two per cent, belying the propaganda of the danger of mass conversions to Christianity, making Hindus a "minority".

A more bizarre and dangerous campaign being run against the Muslim community is that of "love jihad". Inter-community marriages, when the man is a Muslim, have been converted into a dark conspiracy theory hatched by Muslims to "trick and trap" Hindu women to marry Muslims, convert to Islam and to produce Muslim children thereby threatening to reduce Hindus into a minority! There have been tragic cases when young Hindu women have been hounded and forced to make statements that they were indeed tricked into love by a Muslim.

In such a context, the Prime Minister's silence and absence in Parliament is ominous. He should have spoken out against the reconversion programmes being conducted by organisations owing allegiance to the "mother organisation", the RSS, to which he, too, belongs. This was even more necessary given that a Member of Parliament of his own Party has threatened to hold more such reconversion programmes including reportedly on Christmas Day.

As one who tries to do yoga fairly regularly, I too believe that it leads to better health, but not if you combine it with poisonous politics. We in India, unfortunately, do have some examples of teachers of yoga with big followings, who practice and preach the politics of hatred. A claim to unite humankind through the power of yoga loses credibility when you are doing the exact opposite in the land where yoga originated.