Contested Terrains of Conversion

The Ghost of conversion haunts our society. The ease with which its horror is narrated does indicate that its spectres are spread far and wide. This is why we may have to do careful scrutiny of the very notion of conversion to understand how it operates in our imagination and continuously returns to haunt us. We need to interrogate several pretentions that are associated with it. when one examines conversion as a notion one has to study the discourse on conversion in our society. One can but notice that it is mainly the discourse of the upper caste. This discourse however positions conversion as caste blind and identifies it as a form of pollution that is being forced on the convert. This leads to thinking that all conversions are forced conversions either by coercion or other persuasive allurements. Moreover, the notion of conversion does have great explanatory potential and is continuously used by the right-wing forces to demonize the minorities in our country. Therefore, it is important as well as relevant to open new analytical possibilities to the spectral notion of conversion.

Conversion is an interrogation. It interrogates the tradition that one leaves in order to embrace another. This is why it is always laden with several layers of emotions. Sensitizing ourselves to this side of the notion of conversion is important to understand why it has become a spectre that haunts both those that are deemed as converts as well as others who did not convert in contemporary India. Although conversions happened centuries ago, they continue to rupture our society even today. This also indicates that the conversion as a notion is disruptive. This also suggests that conversion to another tradition or religion marks a complete boundary with the anterior religion without any overlaps with the new faith. But the question is it truly so? Are there any pure conversions? Maybe there are both continuities and discontinuities in the event of conversion between the anterior tradition and one that is embraced by the convert. This is why perhaps caste survives even after conversions. This also does not mean caste-like other elements or attributes that survive post-conversion in an individual and the community remains exactly the same. There is disjunction as well as mutation of caste as well as other elements in the way they operate among the converts. They become spectral and are haunting the community on several levels.

This is why we have the challenge to revisit the political construction of the notion of conversion and contest its elaboration and its symbolic use in our society. This scrutiny can also bring to light the patterns of ostracism, social control, and ex-communications that hide behind what has been bundled as forced conversion. Maybe what is called forced conversion is ultimately a question of identity, status and power in our society. This is maybe why conversion produces a sense of loss in the community from where conversions occur and sets in what may be called loss and recovery dynamism. This means conversion is truly a complex notion. Within this complexity, there is another pretention that we have the challenge to call into question? The notion of conversion in our society operates within a singularization of Hinduism. The question is: do we have one monolithic Hinduism? Are there many Hinduisms?

Thus the notion of conversion operates within an interplay of caste, identity, and monolithic Hinduism episteme in the sense of Michel Foucault’s framework. This episteme enables us to frame it on a linear hierarchical scale that can then sees conversion as pollution from the upper caste position or as an anti-national act from a right-wing Hindutva location. This indicates that the notion of conversion is afflicted by the purity/ pollution binary of the caste hierarchy. Maybe the convert who claims that he/ she is born again in his/her new faith directly contradicts the belief of being twice-born of the upper castes and thus further renders the notion distastefully intolerable among the upper castes. Here, we also have to understand how a singular, as well as linear construction of History of our country, contributes to the negative clouds that cover our perceptive lenses of our understanding of conversion.

By putting the notion of conversion under this scrutiny, I do not aim to purify it from the weight of the layers of meanings through which it is made operational in our society. I simply wish to sensitize us to the fact that our common understanding of conversion is not innocent and wish to underline that It is deeply political and is positioned by the upper caste who would like to think of it as caste blind and is accomplished by force. Opening these contested terrains of the notion of conversion is filled with the hope that some of the pretentions that taint its connotation will be unmasked. This exercise might dismantle or even drop some of the layers of meaning that upper-caste discourse has embedded for a long time in our society.

It is only by de-politicization of the notion of conversion that maybe we can let the convert speak. The present discourse of conversion silences the converts and dismisses their agency. Hence, the re-visitation of the notion of conversion may open the space for the convert to speak and to be heard. It can certainly open the boundaries closed by the operative discourse on conversion. The opening of the closed boundaries does manifest that conversion is not simply bad faith. It is an act of the convert that seeks adaptability in his/ her life in the dynamic socio-political-economic as well as the religious context of life. Therefore, it is wrong to think that conversion is a wound to the civilizational ethos of our society. It is indeed a way of seeking healing to the wounds that our society inflicts on the people that are marginalized and humiliated. As long as these wounds continue to wound our people, they will seek healing through what we may describe as conversion.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao