When the demolition of the Babri Masjid was threatened in 1991, Parliament en acted a law prohibiting the conversion of any place of worship of one religion into that of another, the only exception being the Babri Masjid itself. Back then, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sought to demolish 3,000 mosques, claiming these were once temples. This threatened 3,000 more clashes of the Babri Masjid variety, stoking communal carnage and destroying Indian secularism. The Masjid was ultimately demolished, but the new law helped prevent the disease spreading to other places of worship.
The problem has returned in unexpected fashion in Aligarh. It must be tackled before it can grow.
In Aligarh, several dalits were once converted to Christianity by the Seventh Day Adventists. That organization then built a church for its new converts. However, 72 of these dalit Christians have been re-converted to Hinduism by the Dharam Jagran Vibhag (DJV), an RSS branch aiming to stop conversions of Hindus to other religions, and attempt re-conversion.
The DJV organized a “shuddhikaran” (cleansing ceremony) to wash away the Christian “taint” in Aligarh. A Shiv poster was put up in the church, but later removed. The alarmed Seventh Day Adventists locked up the church.
The danger is that the DJV and re-converts will seize the church and put up a temple there. “We have found a place near the chabootra (verandah). That is where we will set up the temple. I don’t have anything to say for the church. We have done the shuddhikaran in the building, whether they want to uproot the church or raze it to the ground is their headache. We will not let another church come up because there is no Christian left,” said DJV pramukh Rajeshwar Singh, who came from Uttarakhand for the re-conversion.
Khem Chandra, a local member of the DJV, added, “We will think about the church building. It belongs to the missionaries, but the ground on which it stands belongs to Hindustan. We will not compromise on our dharti (earth). We will meet the villagers and decide about the temple (coming up).”
Now, our Constitution and laws clearly permit the conversion and re-conversion of individuals from and to any religion. The use of financial and other inducements for conversion is illegal, but voluntary conversion is permitted freely. The Seventh Day Adventists and the DJV both have a right to convert people to their respective faiths. The RSS claims that foreign Christian money is being used to “buy” converts to Christianity. This has certainly happened in some countries, leading to the derisive term “rice Christians”. But the Christians point out that overseas Hindus pour enormous sums into Indian religious organizations. Besides, Indian temples and organizations have humungous wealth. If indeed faith can be bought, Hindu organizations have a distinct financial advantage in India, and can easily outbid Christian ones.
But this is just a distraction. Financial inducements for conversions are illegal. Only voluntary conversions are legal.
What is clearly illegal, however, is the destruction of a place of worship, or its conversion into a place of worship for another sect or religion. The 72 dalits in Aligarh can follow any religion they want, but cannot claim ownership of the church, which belongs to the Seventh Day Adventists.The mere fact that the 72 dalits worshipped in that church does not make it their personal property, to be disposed of as they like. They can build a temple on any other land, close or far from the church. But they cannot claim, as DJV leader Khem Chandra has done, that the church building may belong to the Christians, but the ground underneath belongs to Hindustan.
Hindustan does not mean the exclusive land of religious Hindus. Historically, Hindustan simply meant the land of the people of the Indus valley. The Constitution is very clear that India is a land of multiple religions where persons of all faiths are equal, and none can be discriminated against.
Let us hope good sense will prevail. There has been no violence so far, and the Seventh Day Adventists clearly want to avoid any clash. But their fear is palpable, and they wonder if threats to other churches will follow.
On Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for communal peace. He should follow up by formally declaring that a place of worship cannot change hands merely because local worshippers have converted. The UP Government should re-iterate that this is what the law says. But if all major parties remain silent, it can only encourage those wishing to take the law into their hands. This tumour must be cut out before it becomes a malignant cancer.