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How to Be Un-Born Again

India's biggest radical Hindu group aims to wipe out Christianity through reconversions and violence.

Laba Digal, 50, sits mending flat tires of bicycles and two-wheelers near the thoroughfare in Kasinipada, a village in the district of India that saw the most anti-Christian violence this fall. Digal says he was a Christian until September, when a local head of the radical Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) came to him twice.

"He told me to become a Hindu. He said if I did not, I would lose my home. He said I couldn't live in the village as a Christian. I did not want problems. So I accepted," Digal says.

Now a Hindu, Digal says he will get a government certificate stating that he is a Dalit. Such a certificate will make Digal eligible for other affirmative action benefits, such as government jobs reserved for Dalits.

The RSS has been reconverting people like Digal to Hinduism — usually from Christianity — for over a decade. Their reconversion campaign is called "homecoming." It is well organized and has cadres assigned to it almost across the whole of India.

The RSS has groups that use propaganda and groups that use violence. The groups entrusted with the task of getting the message out in words conduct meetings where they denounce the church as evil. They follow that up with warnings that Christians must reconvert to Hinduism or die. The RSS arm entrusted with enforcement follows with attacks.

A 1967 law in Orissa bars religious conversion by use of force and by means of inducement or allurement. The law says that the head of the district administration must permit every conversion. The RSS says that despite the law, few converts to Christianity in Orissa have obtained legal sanction, though the number of Christians in the state is rising fast.

On September 25, 2008 Vidyaram Pandey, the head of an RSS branch in Uttar Pradesh, made the claim that the RSS had reconverted 50,000 Christians so far in the state, India's largest. He added that the RSS would drive all pastors out of Uttar Pradesh in five years.

Pandey's statement offers insight into the timeframe that the RSS has set for its drive against Christians in India. The organization was founded in 1925 and now has about 30 different branches, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's principal right-wing political party.

Organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, a collection of young, armed radical Hindus, have targeted Christians in the states of Orissa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The Bajrang Dal rarely targets the rich converts. The poorer Christians are warned to reconvert or lose lives and property. To survive, they reconvert.

The RSS may host a reconversion ceremony up to every fortnight. A typical reconversion ceremony would take about an hour or so. Christians are asked to burn their Bibles first in a bonfire. They then sit in a circle, light incense sticks, and tie red threads to their wrists. The person in charge of the reconversion ceremony, usually a Brahmin, says a short Hindu prayer.

Then, the Christians rise by turn and take a pledge that they have become Hindu, and that their dynasties will perish if they become Christian again. Each of the Christians-turned-Hindus breaks a coconut, and Hindus apply vermilion to the reconverts' foreheads.

The leader chants Hindu mantras and the participants repeat. In the end, they all kneel and place their foreheads on the ground. Weeks later, the reconverts will attend a yagya, a Hindu ritual where they will wear saffron clothes and a sacred thread on their torsos. They will get their heads shaved, and drink cow urine and the water of tulsi (holy basil).

In their new life, the reconverts will nurture a tulsi plant in their homes, have pictures of Hindu gods on their walls, and celebrate Hindu festivals. They are supposed to pray only to Hindu gods.

Hrudayabasi Dandia, 55, a Bishop based in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state, refers to the case of Madhusudan Das, one of Orissa's first barristers. Sometime around 1866, "Das wanted to continue his education abroad. He thought missionary support would help. So he converted to Christianity," says Dandia.

Das is a notable figure in the history of Orissa. He changed his mind about Christianity after he returned from England during the time of the British Raj. Das began to oppose conversion to Christianity and said he was doing so to protect the Jagannath Temple, Orissa's most sacred Hindu institution. When Das died in 1934, Hindus and Christians fought for his body.

The "homecoming" campaign has taken an urgent and violent turn recently, especially in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, which has seen a spate of anti-Christian violence. Almost a quarter of Kandhamal's population is Christian, according to the district magistrate. This is nearly three times the percentage of Christians across Orissa. The RSS sees this surge as evidence of a hostile campaign by the church to convert Hindus to Christianity and often attributes conversions to Christianity to bids for prosperity.

RSS chief KS Sudarshan used his Vijaya Dashami address on October 5, 2008, to lay down the path. The Vijaya Dashami address by the RSS chief is an annual event, and the most important policy guideline in the rightwing fraternity of India.

"The time has come for the awakened Hindu society to shed its image of being docile and always prone to be bullied and attacked by others. … Those who say that "Only our way is the true one and all others are false" cannot be a part of Hindu society. Those who indulge in proselytization by force, allurements and inducements have no place in this nation's life," said Sudarshan.

The RSS also takes exception to Christian teachings. Forgiveness through Jesus Christ is an appealing prospect for the many Dalits who grew up hearing tales of Hindu gods' revenge.

The RSS believes that Christian groups in India receive huge amounts of foreign money which they use to convert Hindus to Christianity. This, Sudarshan said, was a strategy to "disintegrate" India. The RSS says that since British rule, American funding and political support has nurtured Christian missionaries in India. To them, the church is a reincarnation of the East India Company. These accusations are accepted as truth by followers of the RSS.

The RSS also teaches that non-rightwing political parties in India follow a policy of appeasement towards Christians and that they blame the Hindu community—not the Christian community—for communal tension.

The campaign to reconvert Christians to Hinduism is part of the overall RSS strategy to convert India, a secular nation, into a Hindu nation. The events in Orissa are only the beginning.

Vijay Simha is Senior Editor with Tehelka, India's leading investigative magazine. He is based in New Delhi and reports on politics, religion, and policy issues that affect life in India.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today published an editorial and a news story on the violence in India its November issue.

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