In the name of ghar wapsi?

In its seemingly simple construction lies the intended subversiveness of the term ghar wapsi. While the English term ‘homecoming’ seems to be the literal translation of the expression, ghar wapsi is — and means — much more for the authors of this agenda. Ghar (home) implies all that we associate with our home — origin, lineage, safety, security, trust, faith and, of course, family. But here, in the hands and minds of its originators, the ghar is the Hindu umbrella, which they conveniently call ‘Sanatana Dharma’. Wapsi is even more dangerous, for it characterises certain people as lost, strayed, misled, stolen or captured.

Any form of violent religious conversion must be condemned. But that does not and should not deter us from being critical of what is a vulgar exercise of socio-religious violence in the form of ghar wapsi.

The dominant philosophy driving this programme is to establish the Hindu’s first right over this land. Ghar here means that the Hindu faith is the ‘original home’ for all those born in this land. It re-establishes the right-wing rhetoric that this is a Hindu rashtra. It also tells us that, if you want to feel secure or safe within this land, you have to be Hindu or accept Hindu antecedence, precedence and dominance. We are also told that you are family only when you belong to this faith; we trust you only if you are Hindu. The idea of the ‘original’ or ‘first’ is concocted and hammered down so that the rest feel inadequate unless they find ways to be part of that authentic lineage. Each of these implied messages are violent and need to be addressed head-on.

This is a land where many millions of Hindus live but that does not make this a ‘Hindu land’. This is a land of various belief systems, including religious ones and has always been that way. The Adivasis as the expression itself indicates are probably one of the earliest inhabitants of this land. Are they Hindu? Most certainly not. So, is their system of faith the real ghar? Or have we appropriated and mutilated even that? Does it matter where and when the Hindu faith began or for that matter Christianity or Islam? Does it matter if one was practised on this ‘piece of land’ before the other? Faith is not about geography; it is about living practice. As long as there are people living their life believing in a faith, it belongs to that place.

We also need to strongly counter the linear single-line narrative that the right-wing Hindus have drawn between the Vedas and religious practice today. In these thousands of years, there have been numerous counter narratives that questioned rejected practices that we call Hindu today. But by appropriating every one of those ‘rejections of the Vedic tradition’, these counter-movements have been cleverly made mainstream Hindu. This is where the term Sanatana Dharma becomes a very useful tool. The Jains and Buddhists have also been appropriated as part of this idea of Sanatana Dharma (let us not forget that Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu!), while they were actually the strongest independent rejections of Vedic postulations. We cannot and should not forget that this land was, for a period of time, Buddhist and Jain until these religions were overpowered with political support by the Hindu Bhakti movements. So then, should ghar mean Buddhism and Jainism?

People have over centuries converted and reconverted so many times and not just between faiths but even within faiths. The rejection of Vaishnavism to embrace Saivism is also a conversion since it involves the replacing of one set of beliefs and practices with another. In fact, changing strong philosophical positions is also conversion. Wasn’t the rejection of Advaita to embrace Visishtadvaita a form of conversion? But we do not recognise it now as conversion since we have homogenised the idea of the faith. But during its time it caused serious socio-political upheavals. We are all converts of some sort.

Be it the Shankaracharyas, the leading monks of the Ramakrishna order or the various new age yoga/mystic gurus, they have all uniformly remained quiet. Many have in the past raised their voice against what they have seen as forced conversion. I wonder in what category they place these ugly ghar wapsi rituals. It also has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of the non-political Hindus like myself have not protested enough.

Our ghar is not based on religious beliefs but is home to diverse thoughts and philosophies. Which came from where; what was shared, argued, added, deleted is irrelevant and undecipherable. What is true and real is that the people allowed all of these ‘ways of living’ to rub shoulders, contest notions and adapt as they moved and travelled among the people of this vast land. So where is the question of any wapsi?

Originally written for The Hindu

Raise your voice

Dear fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith,

I have never liked the phrase ‘Indian Muslims’. The reason for my discomfort with that description is that it is deeply divisive. It also homogenises you, making you ‘Indian Muslims’ first and last and nothing else. It also in its subtext splits your identity into two parts, where ‘my’ focus is on the ‘Muslim’ and not the Indian. Have you ever wondered why we never hear the phrase ‘Indian Hindus’?

In this lies a very old and stubborn habit of mind which reflects the fault lines of our society, the deep divides in our individual and collective psychologies.

We are in reality a divided nation where all that connects the two communities are the economic services that you provide society. In every other aspect of life, you are ‘unknowns’, even suspect in the eyes of many. But this categorisation is not the intent of my column today. I am forced to ask you some difficult questions since I believe we are in a crucial phase in our history.

Generalisations are odious and I do not want to generalise. But allow me to make what can be called a broad-brush observation. Individual exceptions apart, ‘Indian Muslims’ have taken that description without challenge. By this I do not mean to say you have not protested about it; you have interiorised it within yourselves, so much so that you have become complicit, by default perhaps, in your continuing ghetto-isation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way you respond to happenings, political, social, military around the world but more sharply to events nearer home. Would you not agree that a great many of you seem to think, speak, act as ‘the community’, ‘the qaum’, almost flock-like, moved by a herd-instinct to defend yourselves against ‘the majority’?

Of course you must be vigilant, alert, against the bullying instincts of Hindutva. But why should you remain — again, I am excepting individual exceptions — so deafeningly silent when manifest wrongs are perpetrated by your own ‘co-religionists’?

Wrongs are wrongs and should be responded to as sensitive human beings should react to wrongs.

I am deeply disappointed by the fact that apart from some wise and brave individuals, so many of your leaders remained silent when children were massacred in Peshawar. I was waiting — and continue to do so— for powerful Muslim Indian voices, condemning that savagery. I have wondered why I have not heard a collective outcry of disgust. Could it be because you perceive the present Indian government as pro-Hindu? If this is the reason, it is nothing but an alibi. I also thought of another reason, which I hope is completely wrong. I wondered whether your America-sceptic stance on the Palestinian issue made it difficult for your leaders to condemn the Taliban, since they are at war with the U.S. If this has even a semblance of truth, I don’t know what to say. I am certain that neither one of these ‘reasons’ offer a full explanation. But then, why have I not seen multi-denominational public rallies of condemnation across this country led by your leaders? I wait for the day when not just the first but the wisest and most daring voices are raised by your leaders against terrorism that speaks in Islam’s name. Do not allow the words of the Holy Quran to be used as religious and political tools by anyone, whoever he may be.

I also wait for the day when you, the simple folk of your faith raise your voices against any Islamic religious leader who refuses to condemn violence. There is an urgent need for socio-religious introspection within your community and it has to come from within and not forced upon you. The multiple voices within your faith have to be heard and respected.

Please — and this is crucial — goad your leaders to speak up for gender equality. Do not give a handle for narrow minds to say ‘Oh, the Indian Muslim keeps his women in medieval backwardness’. Don’t, please, oblige the Hindu bigot by giving grist to his mill.

Do not misinterpret this appeal as a right-wing demand to prove your loyalty to ‘India’. It is most certainly not. I write to you since I sincerely believe that there is need for fearless thought and action within the Islamic world. Many in this country, by instinct and conviction, stand by you, in fact, as you because like you they are human beings who happen to be citizens of the Republic of India. They get branded, quite often, as anti-national or pseudo-secularists. Strengthen their hands so that they can strengthen yours and India’s. Don’t let them down.

India has been enriched by you, like the world has, through your great legacies of the heart and mind. The time has come for that legacy to show its capacity for a new and bold leadership that breaks out of cast-iron moulds.

Yours in admiration and hope,
T.M. Krishna

Originally written for The Hindu