New Delhi: Former UP Shia Central Waqf Board chairman Syed Waseem Rizvi converted to Hinduism last week, claiming that he had been “expelled” from Islam. Rizvi’s conversion came weeks after he was threatened for allegedly portraying the Prophet in a bad light in a new book written by him.
Within days of Rizvi’s conversion, Kerala-based filmmaker Ali Akbar and his wife Lucyamma, too, claimed that they were renouncing Islam and converting to Hinduism, owing to alleged incidents where Muslims responded with smiling emoticons on social media posts related to CDS Bipin Rawat’s death in a helicopter crash.
But unlike religions like Islam and Christianity, Hinduism does not have a proselytism procedure. This makes the process of conversion difficult.
While the Arya Samaj, as well as fringe Hindutva organisations like the Hindu Sena and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), among others, have drawn up a their own system of conversions — a free service that includes a “shuddhikaran” or purification ceremony — to help those interested in embracing the religion, the question of caste, an integral part of Hindu social practice, makes the process complicated.
Another challenge is that several states have anti-conversion laws since the subject of religious conversion is a contentious one, with all religions accusing each other of forced or coerced conversions at various times.
ThePrint takes a look at some prevalent Hindu conversion rites and the challenges involving the process.
How Arya Samaj does it
Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist organisation founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati in 1875, requires anyone interested in converting to Hinduism to visit an Arya Samaj temple and submit an application of intent, along with an affidavit stating that he or she is willing to convert by his or her free will. They are also required to submit proof of age and residence, signed by the applicant along with two witnesses.
According to the official Arya Samaj website, after this, a priest will perform a “purification” ceremony, the duration of which is almost two hours. The applicant will then chant certain hymns from the Vedas, as guided by the priest, in front of a fire and will then be given a “Certificate of Conversion to Hinduism”.
The website claims that this conversion practice was originally started by Saraswati as early as 1877 to “bring back those Hindus who had been converted to some other religion by choice or by coercion, who were subsequently willing to come back to Hinduism”.
The Hindu Sena conversion process
Hindu Sena national president Vishnu Gupta told ThePrint that they “conduct the conversion ceremony by following the wisdom of Deval Smriti, which lists vows future converts should take during the conversion process”.
According to him, every Indian was born Hindu and changed their religions later in life due to various reasons. “But now they want to come back to Sanatan Dharma, which is why we call it ‘Ghar Wapsi (return home)‘,” he said.
He added: “In order to make our ghar wapsi campaign successful, we make sure people don’t have to go through a tiresome process to convert themselves to Hinduism. The only thing they have to do is to visit the nearest Hindu Sena centre where we perform shuddhi, following which they successfully become a Hindu and we give them a new name of their choice.”
The assigning of caste is also dependent on choice, according to Gupta. “Any individual who wants to convert their religion to Hinduism is given the option to choose which caste they want to be a part of,” he said.
The ritual of conversion is dependent on their choice, as the rituals and vows differ for different castes, he said.
Citing Rizvi’s example — Rizvi’s conversion took place at the Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad and was officiated by Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati — Gupta said, “No one is forcing them to convert to Hinduism. Rizvi embraced Hinduism because he realised that his predecessors were Hindus. Most of these people are also aware of the castes their ancestors belong to.”
Rizvi, earlier a Syed — described as the Muslim equivalent of Brahmins — was assigned the caste of Tyagi, a caste to which Saraswati himself belonged before he became a priest (some have raised questions about the caste allocation for Rizvi).
While Tyagis consider themselves to be similar to Brahmins, the latter don’t accept them as such.
Laws and allegations
A Pew Research Center survey released in September this year cited Census figures from 1951 and 2011 to say the number of Hindus in the country has grown to 966 million (from 304 million), Muslims to 172 million (from 35 million), Christians to 28 million (from 8 million), Sikhs to 20.8 million (from 6.8 million), Buddhists to 8.4 million (from 2.7 million) and Jains to 4.5 million (from 1.7 million).
The issue of religious conversion has always been a contentious one in India.
Over six alleged incidents of religious conversion were reported in Madhya Pradesh between November and December this year, with state police claiming Christian missionaries were trying to “lure tribal women to convert to Christianity”.
Another such allegation was made by Vadodara District Social Defence Officer Mayank Trivedi against Missionaries of Charity, an organisation founded by Mother Teresa, in Gujarat Wednesday. The organisation has denied any attempt to conduct forceful conversion.
Decades ago, in Meenakshipuram in 1981, over 1,100 low-caste Hindus or Harijans converted to Islam.
While India does not currently have a central law on religious conversions, different states have drawn up their own regulations on the subject.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 was passed earlier this year. Uttarakhand had brought in a similar law — the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act — in 2018 and Himachal Pradesh amended its 2007 law on religious conversions in 2019. States like Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and Jharkhand also have laws regarding religious conversion.
“When a person converts his or her religion, they are required to submit a declaration to respective district magistrate in the form of an affidavit, saying ‘I have forsaken my religion, and I am adopting this religion’. But in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, there are additional procedures established by ordinances under the anti-conversion law that have to be followed,” said Anas Tanvir, a Supreme Court advocate and founder of Indian Civil Liberties Union, which works to address human rights violations in the country.
He added: “In both states, individuals seeking to undergo conversion are required to give advance notice of 60 days to the DM. However, in UP, religious converters (those officiating at the conversion ceremony) are required to notify one month in advance. In MP, the priests or organisers are also required to notify 60 days in advance. Also in Uttar Pradesh, upon receiving the declarations, the DMs are further required to conduct a police inquiry into the intention, purpose, and cause of the proposed conversion.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)