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Reconversion rath in Red raj - The Telegraph

Sujan Dutta ()
January 12, 1999

Title: Reconversion rath in Red raj
Author: Sujan Dutta
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: January 12, 1999

The saffron brigade has made a deep incursion into Red Bastion
Bengal with its mass reconversion drive.

Like strife-torn Dangs of Gujarat here too the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad's trident has targeted impoverished tribal Christians.

Last week - on January 8 - in the second incident of its kind in
Malda, the VHP "reconverted" 10 Santhals - four men and six
women of three families. The families were from Pitolghor and
Lalpur-Bodhra in Habibpur block and Amlidanga in Gajole block.

In the first and biggest exercise known so far, 28 tribals - 12
men and 16 women of seven families were formally "re-initiated"
into Hinduism through a ritual to "wash away their sins". The
tribals were from Lalpur-Bodhra in Habibpur and Bishnupur in
Bamongola block.

The reconversions have been a two-stage process. The first is a
legal formality. VHP activists take the tribals to court to
file affidavits. The affidavits are simple, three-sentence
declarations in Bengali: "We were Hindus. Greed led us to
Christianity Now we return to Hinduism."

The second stage of the initiation was done through a "Shuddhi
Yagna" (purification ritual before a holy pyre). This is like a
festival in the village where the Conversions take place. The
VHP distributes new clothes among the converts and after the
worship it organises a feast.

The most recent "Shuddhi Yagna" took place on November 22 at the
VHP's ashram in Lalpur-Bodhra village, about 40 km to the east
of Malda town in Habibpur block. Lalpur-Bodhra, a village with
seven hamlets, is in the Malda Lok Sabha constituency
represented by state Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury
- and in the Habibpur Assembly seat (reserved for Scheduled
Tribes) - from where the sitting MLA is the CPM's Jadu Hembrom.
The BJP used to have a say in the panchayat but has now been
overtaken by another Left Front constituent, the RSP.

All the reconversions in Lalpur-Bodhra have taken place among
families who live in the Shalbhodra a hamlet. Shalbhodra - a
hamlet of the very poor with 42 households - now has only one
Christian family. But it is strategically located for the VHP.
To its east is Kharibari, a largish village with one Catholic
and another Protestant church. To its west is Rahutara where the
Catholic Mission has a big complex.

The VHP has asked its cadre to concentrate in areas where
Christian missionaries have a significant presence. The
campaign in Malda district is in line with the instruction of
the VHP leadership. It also demonstrates that reconversion is
not restricted to just one or two states and, with the two other
recent instances in Gujarat and at Nashik in Maharashtra, spans
India from west to east.

VHP leaders have no qualms about speaking on record against the
Christian Missions. "They are now converting religions;
tomorrow they will ask the people to convert their nationality,"
says Asit Bhattacharya, leader of the VHP's Dharma Prasar Vibhag
(religious propaganda cell), in Calcutta. Bhattacharya, who is
also an invitee to the VHP's top leadership panel, is
responsible for the poraborton (reconversion) drive in the
state.

The VHP asserts that all tribals were Hindus to start with. The
truth is that tribals have their own beliefs - they are nature-
worshippers, irrespective of the faith they are converted to.
"Since we cannot pressure the government to stop conversions
because freedom of religion is a Constitutional right, we have
started a positive campaign of reconversion," justifies Ajoy
Kumar Nandi, secretary of VHP's West Bengal unit.

Strictly speaking, the conversions have not been forced. "We
ask people not to go to church. We request them, even urge them
because here all are Hindu but we never force," says Sarkar
Hembram, the VHP's full-time "reconverter" in Shalbhodra and a
Santhal himself.

But there are village-level compulsions on tribals for changing
their religious identity.

"My grandfather had converted to Christianity," recalls Mahendra
Mardi who was Mathias Mardi before the November 22 ceremony.
"As Christians we were advised not to participate in our
traditional rites (tantra-mantra). So everyone around here
asked us to convert to Hinduism."

Says Asodi Murmu, Mahendra's wife, who also converted: "Now we
can participate as enthusiastically as the others in Durga Puja,
Kali Puja and other festivals. Though we never stopped giving
donations for these festivals, we used to be discouraged as
Christians and we were feeling left out." The decision to
reconvert sprang from this social ostracism. It was also
assertive Hindu majoritarianism at work, though the Hindu caste
system does not even recognise the existence of tribals. Even
in West Bengal, where the caste system is not practised rigidly,
tribals live on the fringes of a village, symbolic of their
social status.

There have also been other reasons for discontent among these
people. Madan Murmu - Joseph Murmu before November 22 - an
illiterate who converted to Christianity because his first wife
was Christian - says he wants to send his children to school.
The VHP is urging him to get his first wife and his children by
her reconverted as well. "But where can they go to school?"
wonders Madan.

The only government primary school in the vicinity is rarely
open after villagers questioned why teachers were irregular.
Frugal though its ashram is, the VHP has opened a primary school
the Saraswati Vidya Mandir within its precincts in Lalpur-
Bodhra. Madan has not yet been able to send any of his children
to that school too - it is not free but hopes that one day he
will.

Religious fundamentalists have stepped in where the state has
failed. The Christian missions have schools and hostels within
their complex, too, but Father Jayapalan of the Rahutara
Catholic Mission claims: "We are not in the business of
conversion".

The VHP claims since October, it has reconvened 300 Christians
in five districts. Given the Malda experience, it is likely
that there is more to such chest-thumping than many would like
to believe.


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