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1956 Niyogi panel and Meenakshipuram 1981: Defining moments of religious conversions debate

The Niyogi committee was set up by Congress govt in Madhya Pradesh after several complaints of conversion of tribal Hindus to Christianity came up.

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New Delhi: The debate on ‘religious conversions’ in India has been reignited with cases of conversion of Hindus to Islam coming to light in Uttar Pradesh, and that of Sikh girls in Jammu and Kashmir. What has added fuel to this debate is the Pew survey report on ‘Religion in India’, released recently.

A general perception is that the ‘religious conversions’ issue has been used by Hindu outfits in the country to consolidate Hindu votes, and it is being raked up again with a number of states going to assembly polls in less than a year from now. The outcome of these polls, especially in Uttar Pradesh, is being perceived as an indicator of things to come in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

However, it’s a fact that the issue of religious conversions isn’t related to electoral politics as much as many may want it to be. There are two crucial and defining movements in the journey this debate has witnessed since Independence, and both times it had nothing to do with electoral politics.

The first defining moment was the Niyogi Committee Report On Christian Missionary Activities in 1956 when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the forerunner of the present-day Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was a very junior player in national politics. The second crucial moment was the conversion of a number Scheduled Caste Hindus to Islam in Meenakshipuram (Tamil Nadu) in 1981.

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Niyogi committee report

The Niyogi committee was set up by the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh after several complaints of conversion of tribal Hindus to Christianity came up.

A look at the committee’s key findings show how serious the issue of religious conversions was even at that time. “On consideration of the material” before it, the report arrived at the following “conclusions of fact”:

1. Since the Constitution of India came into force there has been an appreciable increase in the American personnel of the Missionary organisations operating in India. This increase is obviously due to the deliberate policy of the International Missionary Council to send evangelistic teams to areas of special opportunities opened to the Gospel by the Constitutional provision of religions freedom in some of the newly independent nations, equipped with new resources for mass evangelism through the press, film, radio and television (Pages 27 and 31 of the Missionary Obligation of the Church, 1952).

2. Enormous sums of foreign money flow into the country for Missionary work, comprising educational, medical and evangelist activities. It was out of such funds received from abroad that in Surguja the Lutherans and other proselytizing agencies were able to secure nearly 4,000 converts.

3. Conversions are mostly brought about by undue influence, misrepresentation, etc., or in other words not by conviction but by various inducements offered for proselytization in various forms. Educational facilities such as free gifts of books and education are offered to secure the conversion of minors in the primary and secondary schools under the control of the Missions. Moneylending is one of the various forms adopted as a mild form of pressure to induce proselytization. This is found very prominently in the case of Roman Catholic Missions operating in the hill tracts of Surguja, Raigarh, Mandla, etc. Cases where coercion was reported to have been used are generally of those converts who wish other members of the family to join their Christian parents or to secure girls in marriage.

4. Missions are in some places used to serve extra religious ends. In spite of assurances given by foreign and national Missionaries to authorities, instances of indirect political activities were brought to the notice of the Committee.

5. As conversion muddles the converts’ sense of unity and solidarity with his society, there is a danger of his loyalty to his country and State being undermined.

6. A vile propaganda against the religion of the majority community is being systematically and deliberately carried on so as to create an apprehension of breach of public peace.

7. Evangelization in India appears to be a part of the uniform world policy to revive Christendom for re-establishing Western supremacy and is not prompted by spiritual motives. The objective is apparently to create Christian minority pockets with a view to disrupt the solidarity of the non-Christian societies, and the mass conversions of a considerable section of Adivasis with this ulterior motive is fraught with danger to the security of the State.

8. Schools, hospitals and orphanages are used as a means to facilitate proselytization.

9. Tribals and Harijans are the special targets of aggressive evangelization for the reason that there is no adequate provision of hospitals, schools, orphanages and other social welfare services in the scheduled or specified areas.

10. The Government of Madhya Pradesh, have throughout followed a policy of absolute neutrality and non-interference in matters concerning religion and allegations of discrimination against Christians and harassment of them by Government officials have not been established. Such allegations have been part of the old established policy of the Missions to overawe local authority and to carry on propaganda in foreign countries.

The outcome of this report in the socio-cultural arena was significant. It was one of the key triggers for the formation of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and expansion of the work of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which have ever since worked across India to check conversions and keeping the issue alive. Both these outfits were set up by the volunteers of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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What happened after Meenakshipuram conversions 

The Meenakshipuram incident led to a furore in the country with the RSS taking up the issue in a big way.

The VHP took the lead and an organisation by the name of Virat Hindu Samaj was set up, which organised a ‘Viral Hindu Sammelan’ in Delhi and it estimated to have been attended by 5 lakh people.

Such conferences were organised all over the country at state and district levels. The issue was also raised in Parliament.

Interestingly, ‘Virat Hindu Samaj’ was headed by a senior Congress leader, Dr Karan Singh, and the general secretary was Ashok Singhal, an RSS pracharak (full-time worker). This movement actually laid the ground for the Ram Temple movement in 1983 by Hindu religious leaders, with the support of the VHP.

One of the offshoots of this debate has been the issue of ‘love jihad’.

However, it is clear that the debate on religious conversions in India has been continuing for the last seven decades and would continue to do so, until these conversions by force or fraud are checked. Thus, it isn’t about merely garnering some additional votes by consolidation of Hindu votes — the debate is much bigger and much larger.

(The writer is a research director with Delhi-based think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. He has authored two books on the RSS. Views expressed are personal.)

Also read: Why have Modi’s rivals failed to challenge him? This survey of Indians’ religiosity has clues


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