This Article is From Dec 20, 2014

Truth vs Hype: The Myth of Conversions

Gorakhpur: On the terrace of a Gorakhpur hotel on a chilly morning, Sunil Singh, president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini described his programme, scheduled for the day, to bring back Muslim families in a village in the nearby district of Kushinagar into the Hindu fold.

"Whoever comes and says that their ancestors were forced to convert and now feel suffocated in their faith - whether Islam or Christianity - we will conduct their home-coming," Singh told NDTV.

This in a week when Parliament continued to be roiled because of similar plans by Hindutva outfits to carry out religious conversions.

A week earlier, the supposed conversion of over 50 Muslim families by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS-backed Dharam Jagaran Samiti in Agra had caused a furore in Parliament. The group had announced a bigger programme on Christmas day in Aligarh, daring the ruling Samajwadi Party, but since called off on orders from the RSS high command, according to Kashinath Bansal, treasurer of the Samiti.  

What makes the HYV's defiance striking is that unlike the other Sangh Parivar groups engaged in similar activities, it has a direct link to the BJP -- it was established by the party's five-time Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, in 2002.  The Prime Minister had told party MPs to steer clear of controversies, his second such warning; the first was issued in the wake of incendiary comments made by a BJP minister during the Delhi election campaign.  

As the only concession to the political turmoil, Sunil Singh told us that the programme, in the village of Adhmauli, is not a formal conversion, but a ghar wapsi or 'homecoming'. "Conversion is only when a Hindu is forced to leave his religion because of force or fear."

But as Sanjay Hedge, a Supreme Court lawyer, told us, "There is nothing in law called a ghar wapsi or reconversion. What the Supreme Court has said is that at an individual level you have that right but you don't have the right to further convert someone by force. So there is nothing in law that entitles one person to conduct a ghar wapsi on another."

The niceties of the law seemed of little concern to the HYV as much as ensuring the event got media coverage. After they announced their plans, a jittery UP police swung into action, stopping them on the way to the village in full view of the cameras. 

When we reached Adhmauli, it became swiftly clear that the police may have just as well let them through.

Instead of the dozens of Muslims who were meant to cross over as the HYV had boasted, there were signs of activity only at one family's home, of the Nat caste. The Nats are a nomadic community, classified as a Scheduled Caste.

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Some Nats have converted to Islam, but not this family.

They told us their family has been Hindu all along. In their prayer room were idols and pictures of Hindu deities. One of the Nat women showed us a faded tattoo of Durga on her forearm.

They seemed unclear on why they were being asked to take part in the HYV ceremony, or what benefits it would bring them. The only change appeared to be in funeral rites. "Baba (Adityanath) said that if you are a Hindu, then believe in the Hindu religion and cremate your dead," said Asharfi. "Earlier, we buried them."

A local member of the HYV, Avadesh Gupta, who had sneaked past the police barriers, had no explanation for the deception. "We just want to have a meal with them and welcome them into the Hindu fold," he said.

We drove to the nearby village of Ghazipur, where the HYV claimed to have successfully converted 40 Muslim families in October. In this case, it turned out that they had converted Muslim Nats, but far fewer in number. Sarabjeet, a Muslim Nat, told us that "a few families took part in the HYV ceremony.'  He said none of the Muslim Nats in the village had been forced into Islam. Instead, he said it was the HYV which had lured a few of them with the promise of gifts.

All that has been achieved, he said, is creating friction where none existed. "There is no communication between us and those who have been converted anymore," said Sarabjeet.

Manoj Singh, a senior Gorakhpur-based journalist, says the HYV's exaggerated claims are in keeping with the Yogi's brand of the politics of polarisation. In this case, just the announcement of 'gharwapsi' events - whether they are followed through or not - has the potential to stoke social tensions.

"Ever since the Hindu Yuva Vahini was established," said Mr Singh, "they've found a Hindu-Muslim angle to every incident", quickly escalating it into a communal standoff. He recounted dozens of such incidents which parallel Adityanath's rise over the past 15 years.

But the HYV denies allegations of manufacturing provocation for electoral gains. "We haven't acted, but yes we have reacted," said Sunil Singh. "If you will slap me, I'm not Mahatma Gandhi to present my other cheek. I will break your hand. This is the purpose of the Hindu Yuva Vahini."