Former chairman of Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board Syed Waseem Rizvi’s decision to convert to Hinduism is legally fine. He has that right under the chapter of fundamental rights in the Indian Constitution. To profess a religion, to convert, or even not to profess any religion is a normative idea in most democratic countries.
But Rizvi’s conversion has posed a predicament for the Hindu religion. His becoming a Hindu can’t be as simple as someone converting to Islam or Christianity or Sikhism or Judaism. A Hindu must have a caste. ‘Casteless Hindu’ is an oxymoron, an impossibility. Rizvi’s problem was fixed by Yati Narsimhanada Saraswati, who officiated the former’s conversion at Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad by renaming him Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi. And thus, the former Samajwadi Party leader got his caste, an abode to live under the bigger tent of Hinduism. What a relief. He has an address. Or has he?
Though Waseem Rizvi was a Syed, the highest rank in Indian Muslim hierarchy, he was inducted in a comparatively low Tyagi caste. A top-ranking Muslim should be made a Brahmin. Why else shall they convert? After all, this will be a downgrade for them in the social hierarchy.
This is also one of the reasons why Muslims will never convert to Hinduism in large numbers. A Sikh Jat or a Syrian Christian, who are placed highest in Sikh and Christian hierarchies, respectively, will not accept the subjugation by the Brahmins and Thakurs.
For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to succeed in its ghar wapsi campaign, converting the higher-ups is very important. Those who hold top rank in the social hierarchy, also play the role of opinion leaders among the followers of that religion. If the top-ranking persons of a religious order refuse to convert to Hinduism then the middle and lower castes among them will also hesitate.
Rizvi becoming a Hindu has led to three complex issues:
1. Why was a Syed not inducted in the Brahmin caste after he accepted Hinduism? The problem is that an outsider becoming a Brahmin is simply not possible. Brahmins are born, becoming one was not possible. Rizvi was adjusted in the Tyagi caste. Tyagis or Tagas consider themselves very similar to Brahmins but Brahmins have different ideas about the former. The two castes don’t marry each other. Tyagis’ position in the caste hierarchy is almost that of the Bhumihars.
2. The second reason is more complex. Yati himself is a Tyagi and was earlier known as Deepak Tyagi. He included Rizvi in his own caste. But we don’t know, at this point, whether the Tyagis will accept Rizvi (now Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi) in their fold. We can only guess whether the Tyagis will consider marriage alliances with the family members of Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi. If this does not happen, then his position will become untenable in the Tyagi caste. The possibility of him getting accepted in the Tyagi caste can become greater if the community were to accept Rizvi’s forefathers as Tyagis and his conversion as some sort of ghar wapsi (returning to home).
3. Third problem is about Narayan Singh Tyagi’s right to have upanayana sanskara (the religious practice of wearing sacred thread called janeu or poonal). In Sanatana Dharma Shastra, those who have rights to wear sacred thread are called Dwijas or the twice born. Historically and traditionally, Tyagis have the hereditary right to wear the thread. But will a neo-convert be allowed the practice?
Becoming a Hindu can be complex
B.R. Ambedkar has written and explained this problem in detail in his thesis Who Were the Shudras: “The real criterion is not the wearing of the sacred thread but the right to wear the sacred thread. Understood in its proper sense, it may be said without fear of contradiction that the right to Upanayana is the real and the only test of judging the status of a person…” According to religious texts, only Brahmins have the authority to perform the upanayana ceremony. Will they perform the upanayana sanskara for a neo-convert Tyagi? If they refuse to perform the sanskara, then this will make Jitendra Narayan Singh a Shudra or even a Pancham (formerly ‘untouchable’).
Becoming a Hindu can be a complex and tedious exercise.
Despite taking all the pain of conversion, if the neo-converts are placed low in the social order, then it will only dissuade them from choosing Hinduism.
It’s a fact that caste is a South Asian problem and no religion can claim that its followers do not practice caste in some form or another. But the difference is that among the Hindus, caste has religious sanction whereas caste among non-Hindus is without religious consecration. This makes the caste practice among Hindus rigid and thus prevents them from welcoming others into their fold.
Ambedkar argues that caste prevents Hindus from being a missionary religion. He argues that caste is inconsistent with conversion. “Problem is where to place the convert, in what caste? It is a problem that arises in connection with conversion. It is a problem which must baffle every Hindu wishing to make aliens convert to his religion.”
This is the reason that despite all efforts of Arya Samajis and RSS volunteers, the idea of shuddhi and the project of shuddhikaran remains a non-starter. Shuddhikaran only worked in the case of mainland tribals because they do not practice caste as a system of hierarchy in their social life. Thus, it is easier for a Christian tribal to re-convert to Hinduism because in a new religious avatar, his/her social status is not defined by any caste identity. The tribals were never part of the Hindu order. They were not even outcastes or pancham varna. This means that they don’t have the Hindu problem of locating caste while converting.
If RSS actually wants to make India a pure Hindu Rashtra, it must undertake the project of large scale shuddhikaran, and annihilate caste amongst Hindus. To do so, the RSS will be required to denounce religious texts, Shrutis, Smritis, even the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita as these texts provide sanction to the caste system. It’s not an easy task. Till then, Muslim and Christian religious leaders should not worry that people will do ghar wapsi to Hinduism in large numbers.
The reasons are obvious. As R. Jagannathan of Swarajya says, the larger Hindu society does not know how to accept the new converts in their faith. He asks a pertinent question: Why did Hindu society fail to win back even those Hindus who converted due to fear and coercion? He concludes by saying, “The only way Hindu demography can be maintained or expanded in India is by making Hinduism a missionary faith, but this means creating an ecosystem to support such missionary activities. Islam and Christianity are leagues ahead of Hindus in this race. But if we don’t start building this ecosystem now, the two Abrahamic faiths will gain at our cost. Hinduism will shrivel and wither in the land of its birth.”
It’s easier said than done.
Jagannathan is asking for a fundamental purge in Hinduism. To become a proselytising religion, Hinduism has to first annihilate caste. This is again a tough task.
Another issue is that without structures like caste, birth-based graded inequality and hierarchy, and ideas like karma philosophy and rebirth to sustain those structures, what will remain in Hinduism? Will that even qualify to be called Hinduism?
It’s a real catch-22 situation. Until this is resolved, Rizvi becoming a Tyagi remains a rare affair.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)