ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Political Context of Religious Conversion in Orissa

The apathy of dalit intellectuals and politicians over the communal incidents in Orissa reflects their prejudice and lack of confidence as regards the issue of conversion. The absence of a social movement in Orissa based on the praxis worked upon by B R Ambedkar has allowed fundamentalist and right-wing forces to take advantage of the deprived and the marginalised.

in the desperate hope of a better life, a ccess to modern education and a dignified social status (Sharma 2002). In Orissa the attempts to convert by the dalits and tribals has been communalised systematically in order to retain the perpetual hegemony of the upper caste elites in the social and economic spheres.

The question of religion is central to the dalit perspective and to the social movements related to it. I am, therefore, suggesting in this context that conversion performs the epistemological function of judging religion in the public order. In this essay, in order to understand the recent Kandhamal experience in Orissa, I have focused on three major issues. First, I would like to bring into light the moral responsibility of the dalit movements over the issue of conversion by evoking Ambedkar’s intervention on the question of religious and social reforms. Further, I am trying to demonstrate how the contemporary dalit social movements have distracted from its moral responsibility of deliberating upon the issue of religious conversion. Second, I would like to locate the problems and issues which have become hurdles in forming an alliance between the converted dalits and the tribals to build an influential social movement of the oppressed communities. Finally, I would like to analyse the latest incidents in Kandhamal by contextualising its impact over the dalit-tribal relationship.

The violent attacks against the Christian minorities by the Hindutva forces, especially in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, have been analysed through multiple angles. Issues were raised using the aegis of the secularism versus communalism divide. What is most disturbing is the lack of ideological interventions and critical engagement from dalit political parties and intellectuals on such a crucial issue. Those who were attacked by the Hindutva brigade in Orissa are primarily dalits or tribals. These socially deprived sections often converted to Christianity or other religions

Earlier to Ambedkar’s conversion, the question of caste was understood as an internal affair of Hinduism and its solution was largely restricted within the boundaries of internal social and religious reforms. Gandhi was the main promoter of this hypothesis claiming that it will be the moral duty of the upper caste elites to do the needful for the empowerment of the depressed castes. In addition, Gandhi further claimed that caste system had preserved many elements of Indian culture and civilisation in face of foreign invasion and rule over centuries (Dirks 2006). Ambedkar objected to such superficial benevolence and argued for a radical transformation of social and religious milieus. His decision to walk out of the Hindu fold has a moral motive. He wanted to articulate a modern dalit liberation theology different from the dharma-ordained religious order of Gandhi’s Hinduism. However, conversion to Buddhism for Ambedkar was not just reactive but a positively motivated act through which he wanted to propagate the values of liberty, equality and fraternity in the society.

Ambedkar had witnessed the instrumentality of religion in politics and its evil results on two occasions. The creation of Pakistan was followed by large-scale communal violence between the two major religious communities and later the assassination of Gandhi by the Hindu fanatics. He knew that communalism rabidly n egates the secular credentials and tolerant modes of social living which are visualised as the fundamental character of the modern nation state by the nationalist leadership. On the other hand, Ambedkar had also witnessed that because of its degraded brahmanical caste system, religion as social doctrine is antithetical to values of modernity. He understood that dalits and women who comprised more than half the population of the country were two categories who were the victims of this social system. The Hindu social identity of the dalit was degraded and his/her public identity was contaminated with orthodox caste prejudices and it was difficult for the dalits in this context to reap the benefits of new democratic order as an equal citizen. To nurture the modern ethos

– individual liberty, social dignity and harmony – a cohesive societal set-up was needed, which Ambedkar argued was not possible within the stratified nature of the Hindu caste system (Ambedkar 1987).

Ambedkar believed that conversion to Buddhism will empower the dalit-self from such an illiberal and appalling social milieu and that it was really difficult for a modern state to establish secularism and a true democratic order in such a caste-based and communally-defined social and political atmosphere. Ambedkar believed that conversion to Buddhism was necessary as it had the required potential values which supported the liberal ethos of the newly imagined modernised nation state (Vishwanathan 2001). Therefore, Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism has been regarded as a modernist project to redefine the character of India as a secular nation state.

Ambedkar was convinced that Buddhism possessed a moral doctrine and he employed this as a strategy to achieve certain objectives. First, against the existing perspectives of political interventions of the elites which were mostly materialist and xenophobic, he proposed political activism with an ethical objective deriving from that doctrine. Second, for him, Buddhism’s moral doctrine represented an apparatus that enabled the subaltern masses to bring about radical changes in the socio-cultural relationships of the Indian society. Buddhism provided a comprehensive socio-political and cultural alternative which is conducive to an effective functioning of liberal-democratic polity. Third, Ambedkar a ssumes that conversion to Buddhism, at the first stage would “de-caste” the dalits from their primordial caste identity and in the progressive run to “establish the k ingdom of righteousness for the prosperity of the whole world” which would counter the orthodox religiosity of H induism. In the b attle between scientific temperament of Buddhism and the irrational doctrine of brahmanism, the destruction of latter was inevitable for him.

I would like to argue that the issue of religious conversion provides a poised value to the converted subject to escape from the existing dominant social bondages as a free individual. Freedom to convert from one’s religious identity valorises individual freedom and rational choice as it judges the acceptability of religion on certain ethical credentials. Even the issue of conversion to Christianity in this regards supplements many secular and liberal principles articulated by Ambedkar during his historic attempt of mass conversion of dalits into Buddhism in 1956.

Religion has remained one of the central themes of the dalit movement even today. However, it mostly revolved around the “Hindu dalits” and their relationships with the dominant Hindu social order. Apart from the dalit-Buddhist movement in Maharashtra, a critical comparative methodology has not been developed in other parts of the country vis-à-vis the relationship of dalits of non-Hindu religions like Christianity and Islam, with the Hindu dalits. The dalit perspective is yet to treat the converted dalit Christians and Muslims as their fellow kith and kin and their issues as the compulsory components of the dalit social movement. Their demand for an inclusive platform of social justice is also yet to achieve respectable space in the mainstream discourses of the dalits today. In the recent past, such indifferent tendency has increased further on many crucial i ssues of dalit Christians and Muslims. This lack of theoretical and practical e ngagements by the dalit social movements on the socio-religious issues of o ther deprived sections has provided i mpetus to the right wing and status quoist political outfits to gain momentum in p ublic discourses.

In 1981, when more than thousand dalits of the Meenakshipuram district in Tamil Nadu converted to Islam as a response to their perpetual inhumane treatment by the upper castes, the dalit social movement failed to defend their right for religious choice. In 1990s, Gujarat has witnessed violent attacks against Christian minorities. Reacting to this, the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had given a call for a national debate on conversion in 1999. The dalit movements remained reluctant in submitting a sound response to this as well as on the issue of religious conversion and its relationship to dalit emancipation. In April 2007, the Rajasthan government passed the Anti-Religious Conversion Bill without meeting any serious opposition from the dalit social movements; forget about the challenge from the other sections of the larger civil society. The most glaring example of such growing apathy is the continuing and recent incidents of riots and attacks

against Christians in Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa.

The dalit movement is defined as a social movement quintessentially motivated to bring radical structural changes in the oppressive modes of social relationship based on caste and religious identities. The oppressed and marginalised social categories such as women, tribals and religious minorities were naturally considered as the allies and essential components of the larger dalit social movement as they also suffer from identical forms of exploitations and prejudices. The dalit Panthers’ manifesto argued that together they will burn the edifice of Hinduism and its socio-cultural hegemony. However, this ideal has remained unachievable and in most of the states the formation of an umbrella coalition between the oppressed identities was never materialised. Orissa is the burning example of such failure. The dalits and the tribals comprise almost 40% of the population (scheduled tribes constituting 22.13% and scheduled castes 16.53%). However, a common identification based on oppression and marginalisation between these people has never emerged here. Also, the secular and progressive forces, the democratic left and the civil society has not emerged as the representative voices of the deprived sections against the conservative socio-religious order.

There are quintessential social and political reasons due to which a vibrant social movement is almost absent in Orissa, a state that has dismal socio-economic indicators.

Today the spread of the Hindutva

o rganisations is wide. The RSS runs more than 6,000 shakhas in Orissa, with a membership of 1,50,000 plus while the VHP has a base of 1,25,000 members in the state. Another rabidly communal organi sation, the Bajrang Dal has more than 50,000 members who serve in 200 akharas and the women’s wing Durga Vahini has 25,000 members. Both the orga nisations are working in close coordination with RSS, and VHP cadres (Chatterjee 2008). It is estimated that in Orissa, the RSS has a wide network of around 1,700 cultural organisations. These organisations under the pretext of “seva”, “s angathan”, and “dharm raksha”, have successfully communalised the social p syche of the general people. In the absence of the Muslims as a significant community here, the RSS has consciously projected Christians as their bete noire in Orissa and has mobilised people against them. The Christians constitute merely 2.4% of the total population in Orissa and yet the RSS has succeeded in suggesting that the presence and work of Christian missionaries in Orissa is related to several issues faced by both tribals and dalits. The RSS has mobilised the tribals against the dalits over the issues of land, government jobs, language and social identity. In the last decade the RSS have successfully c ommunalised the social and economic i ssues of the tribals and pitted them against the dalit Christians as adversaries.

The secular parties have also failed to bridge the gap between the tribals and the dalits. Even over certain crucial issues of displacement, land grab by the multinational companies and implementation of public policies, these parties have failed by not mobilising the tribals and the dalits to wage a broader struggle. As the leadership of all the political parties is mostly controlled by the upper caste/class elites, conscious and socially sensitive measures for the welfare of the deprived sections have never upheld as the mainstream agenda in Orissa. Further, the disunity between the tribals and the dalits, is in the interest of the upper caste elites. They can hardly visualise dalits and tribals as being literate, socially conscious and having attained economic empowerment as this might challenge the hegemony of the upper castes in social and political spheres. In Orissa, the conspiracy of the upper castes is to further divide the dalits and the tribals on rigid communal lines in order to achieve the hegemonic agenda of Hindutva.

The dalit and tribal leadership is feeble and non-influential as they operate under the aegis of the state apparatus or under the control of upper caste political elites. Due to lack of an independent consciousness about their economic deprivation, social exclusion and political marginalisation they are unable to forge a struggle against the oppressive system.

For a vibrant social movement, presence of a dynamic modernist intellectual leadership is one of the prerequisite conditions. In most of the cases of social movements the leadership and the interlocutors of the movement emerge from the incipient middle classes of the respective communities. In Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, the mahars and the chamars are relatively well-off sections among the dalit castes and both these castes have provided social and political leadership to the oppressed sections of their respective states. These castes have emerged because of a conscious utilisation of modern structures like education, affirmative action policies of the state and a steady involvement in the open urban economy. Economic stability and access to modern education have provided them with a consciousness about their degraded social and economic conditions, the denial of rights as equal citizens and their marginalisation in political and cultural spheres. This consciousness builds new aspirations and a progressive vision for the future society. Based on such formulations they mobilised other oppressed sections and forged a strong social movement. Such developments among the tribals and dalits are not visible in Orissa.

The formation of a greater alliance between the oppressed and marginalised sections is one of the main motives of the social movements in India. This alliance is based upon unanimity over the identification of the oppressors and their relationship with the oppressed. Moreover, any attempt for a greater social or political mobility by the deprived sections required concrete understanding of social justice, which has not been created by any social and political outfit in Orissa.

2 have been considered as a constant threat to the socio-cultural hegemony of the brahmi nical forces. The dalits who are converted to Christianity have also utilised the benefits of modern education and used the state’s infrastructure to achieve some sort of economic empowerment. Therefore, the RSS has linked the slow but steady socioeconomic progress of the dalits with Christianity and portrayed it as the threat to the socio-economic issues of the tribals. The empowerment of the dalits in most of the states in India has seen the calculative strategies by the upper caste conservatives to distract and demoralise their efforts of b ecoming the part of the mainstream society. The usage of threats, social boycott, social discrimination and violent attacks against the dalit communities is the accepted norms among the brahminical forces to curb the growing consciousness among the dalits. The Pannas in Orissa have demonstrated relatively better empowerment among the deprived sections and therefore became the main target of the Hindutva forces.

Fourth, the state and the political system being under the control of upper caste politicians consider the growing consciousness among the dalits and the tribals as another threat to their political hegemony. The Christian missionaries have provided the dalits and the tribals primary education facilities, healthcare and a cordial social relationship. These initiatives lead to steady growth of social and political consciousness among these people, especially among the dalits. Any consolidation of these modernist efforts has the capacity to further challenge the domination of the political elites. Therefore, breaking this growing consciousness among the two deprived sections remain a main agenda for the ruling classes. The RSS has cunningly planted the seeds of communalisation and propagated that the aggressive proselytisation efforts of the Christian missionaries as the main reasons for the growing conflicts between the tribals and the dalits. The reformist initiatives of the Christian missionaries were ghettoised and condemned as the attempts of forceful conversion. Once the main agency of social change is broken, the deprived sections would continue to remain under the control of conservative orthodox social order sans any hope, and that is precisely the agenda of the ruling classes.






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