Indian Rationalist Association

India's largest rationalist organisation. Founded in 1949. Fights for scientific temper, secularism, freedom of thought and expression. Defends reason and science. Exposes superstition, blind belief, obscurantism, paranormal claims caste-based social divisions and guru-politics nexus. Strives for a post-religious society. President: Sanal Edamaruku Contact: Phone: + 91-11-6569 9012, +91-11-64630651

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Miracles" of Satya Saibaba

This clipping is from Satya Saibaba's birthday celebrations at Hyderabad. Originally a Door Darsan clipping, this was suppressed by authorities and was reproduced in "Guru Busters" a Channel 4 documentary on Indian Rationalists and was shown all around the world in hundreds of TV channels.

More clippings from Satya Saibaba
Here is a clipping from "Seduced by Saibaba", a Danish TV documentary made in co-operation with the Indian Rationalist Association.


Sand for the Thirsty - Sanal Edamaruku on conversions

Reproduced from "New Humanist", journal of RPA (London) January / February 2007

Last October, India's dalits – the so-called "untouchables" from lower caste Hindu families celebrated the golden jubilee of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. There seemed a great deal to celebrate. After all, Ambedkar, the icon of dalit dignity and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, had inserted anti-discrimination provisions and quota systems in the country’s law to promote dalit upliftment. Moreover on October 2, 1956, he formally broke the shackles of the Hindu caste system and embraced Buddhism, together with some 380,000 of his followers. Since then, legions of dalits have followed suit – two and a half million in 2006 alone.

Ambedkar was a declared atheist and rationalist. His decision to take "diksha" and be reborn a Buddhist was made just two months before his death. It was an unfortunate, even disastrous and to a signficant career. By suggesting that the dalits need to adopt an alternative religious identity to fight for justice and equality, he weakened the movement and its prospects of achieving genuine equality.

Fifty years later dalit mass "dikshas" are gimmicks, head counts of poor people herded together. The untouchables are used as colourful extras, exploited by a whole range of political and religious special interests. The mass conversions help political leaders to bargain for maximum seats to contest in India’s multi-party, multi-level election system. They are not only celebrated by the Buddhist world (cited as evidence of inexorable growth), but also, suspiciously, by the Indian Bishops Conference. Why? Anti-conversion laws in several Indian states – welcomed by rationalists – prohibit conversion "by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means". So far no mass "diksha" has been stopped by them, but they tie the hands of Christian missionaries. Since neither the Catholic church nor Evangelicals, Baptists, Anglicans or Pentecostals can hope for much support to loosen them, they promote the "dikshas" to make conversions appear acceptable.

India’s 175 million dalits (16 per cent of its 1.1 billion population) are twice as likely to be unemployed or living under the poverty line as the national average. Nevertheless, Ambedkar’s constitutional provisions did improve their lot. Over forty years they doubled the number of dalit girls in urban schools, allowed dalits to study and teach in universities, serve in the civil service, police and army, and sit in legislatures up to the national parliament, which reserves 8 per cent of the seats for them. Even the highest political positions are not closed. Famously, former Indian President KR Narayanan was born a dalit, as was the newly appointed Chief Justice.

According to Article 17 of the Constitution, untouchability is long abolished. But while it has withdrawn from the light of the cities, it has not lost its fury in the darkness of politically neglected rural India. In September 2006, in the village of Khairlanji in Maharashtra, a dalit family was brutally murdered. Sureka Bhotmange and her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, a brilliant student who wished to join the army, were dragged out of their house, paraded naked around the village and gang raped by a dozen high caste Hindus before their genitals were mutilated with sticks and knives. Sureka’s sons Sudhir and Roshan were tortured and their genitials were cut off, when they refused to rape their sister. After more than an hour of torture, all four were hacked to death. Only the father escaped. Some days before, Bhotmange and his family had witnessed in court against fifteen high caste villagers, who had brutally beaten a dalit policeman. The guilty were arrested but were out on bail when they took their revenge.

That the Bhotmanges were Buddhist converts did not protect them. Despite a public outcry at the time, the murderers could well escape conviction. This is not an isolated case. Between 1999 and 2004, 4,435 cases of atrocities against dalits have been reported in Maharashtra alone – the tip of the iceberg. Only 220 of them have led to convictions.

Ambedkar’s heritage has helped to integrate many dalits into modern Indian society. There are now quotas which guarantee dalits jobs in educational institutions and the civil service. But this may also have contributed to sustaining the very caste system that it tries to overcome.

Though many dalits are able to use these quotas to get education and jobs that would otherwise be unreachable, they are viewed with derision by many upper caste students. And since access to higher education and jobs is limited to the legislated quota, many dalits feel their opportunity is still artificially limited. The Indian Supreme Court recently pointed out that while a lucky few benefit from the quota system, the really deprived are left out.

Today, quotas are a "holy cow", an alibi for lack of political will. Meanwhile a recent survey throws new light on the state of India’s Muslims. Statistics describing their educational, economic and social situation look much like dalit statistics. Should Indian Muslims be entitled to quotas too, many are now asking.

Indian Rationalists have already proposed a solution. It lies in a secular quota system, based on new criteria beyond religion and caste. It has to benefit the needy, the deprived and the left-out in Indian society without trapping them forever in their caste or religious past. 

Sanal Edamaruku is a journalist and broadcaster and President of the Indian Rationalist Association .

Conversion Controversies - By N. Kunju

One of the threats faced by Hindus is supposed to be conversion that could reduce their numbers and increase the population of other religions. The conversion to indigenous religions does not matter because the converted remain more or less in the Hindu cultural mould. The occasional ritual conversions of Dalits to Buddhism are more out of political vendetta than due to a genuine change of mind or ideological differences. The follower of Buddha, Mahavira or Guru Nanak could remain a Hindu without any hindrance or opposition from Hinduism. When Dr. Ambedkar converted Dalits en masse to Buddhism, it was a symbolic political protest; he knew neither their status nor outlook radically changed.

In fact, the fear of the reduction of Hindu population due to conversion is unfounded. The proportional increase in the number of Muslims is not due to conversion to Islam. Conversion to Islam had taken place mostly by force; there is no scope for forceful conversion in free India. The increase in Muslim numbers is due to backwardness and unchecked breeding The Sachar Commission has rightly given the statistics to prove the fact. But the Government's remedy to overcome their backwardness by reservation and special concessions is wrong because unlike the Hindu backward castes, Muslim have not suffered any social historical oppression or lack of opportunities.

In fact, historically Muslims had been pampered for the past 1000 years, first during Islamic rule and later by the British regime. Muslim rulers openly discriminated against Hindus even levying special taxes on them and favoured Muslims by giving them high posts in the hierarchy of the administration. It was during their rule Muslims grew from zero to the sizeable population in India, so much so, they could ask for a separate state at the time of independence.

The British had a love-hate relationship with the Muslims. It was hate at the time when the Muslims were rulers and in the transition period to British rule. This was because they had to fight the Muslims to gain power and the 1857 mutiny was at least notionally led by the Mughal "Emperor", Bahadur Shah Zafar.

The British should be given the credit for not going out with the sword to convert Hindus to Christianity as the Muslims had done. Mostly they kept political power and proselytizing agenda separate. The latter, they left to the Christian missionaries. Therefore very little conversion took place in the North except in tribal pockets where indigenous faiths were of a primitive nature.

The story of conversion from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam in the South was different. This has mostly happened before the British came. The story of St. Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, coming to Kerala is more fable than fact. But the Portuguese, the Dutch and German missionaries and before them the Syrian and other Eastern churches had established on the Western coast. Some of the high caste Hindus had embraced Christianity because of the influence of the missionaries. Today the Syrian Christians of Kerala take more pride in saying their ancestors were Brahmins than they are the followers of Christ!

Kerala Muslims too, except those forcibly converted during Tipu Sultan's invasion, are of Arab origin. The Arabs came for business in spices and exquisite cloth and they settled and intermarried with the locals. At that time, the Hindus were reluctant to go abroad because of superstitious beliefs and the ruler of Malabar, the Samoothiri (Zamorin) had asked some of his soldiers to convert to Islam so that he could have a navy. And he did have a strong naval force under the command of Kunjali Marakkar who fought the European fleet and won wars on the waters. The Indian Navy has honoured his memory by naming one of its important establishments INS KUNJALI.

The Hindu traditional oppression of the low castes too contributed to the conversion into Christianity and Islam. Why should a man remain an untouchable serf (almost a slave) when another religion promised him to make him a brother? The promise of course mostly proved false; Christian and Muslim orthodoxy never accepted the low-caste converts as equals. But the enticement worked and many low caste Hindus were lured by the two religions. Today those who were converted from low castes are demanding their rights of reservation and other concessions as applicable to the Hindu backward castes. So much for the brotherhood promised by Christianity and Islam!

But it should be conceded that the Christian missionaries had done commendable work in the field of education. Unlike Hindu orthodoxy that exhibited its prosperity by building magnificent temples, the Christians built temples of learning. They might have had the ulterior motive of winning over Hindus, but there was no compulsion. And many Hindus who studied in Christian institutions didn't convert, though they acquired an admiration to Christian modernity. Of course, the missionaries did lure the low castes by special favours to them if they got converted. It is a fact that brilliant boys from backward castes benefited, had higher education and got high jobs and got out of the social stigma.

There is the interesting story narrated to the Indian Express by India's first Dalit Chief Justice Konakuppakkattil Gopinathan Balakrishnan about his father: ...Gopinathan was not one to take the socially assigned Dalit route. Yearning to go to school, Gopinathan was told that Dalits were not particularly welcome in most local government schools. Christian missionaries ran the remaining schools and Christians were preferred. So he changed his name to a Christian one, Kunhachan Marcos, and managed to get into a school run by the Church of South India. Borrowing books from classmates, often going without food, Marcos passed his final school examination - but no one gave him a job. Years later Marcos finally went through 'purification' rite and reverted to his old self, as Gopinathan. It was even later that he managed to get a lowly job of a copyist in the court... (Indian Express Dec. 25, '06).

However, after conversion to Christianity, very few Hindus underwent Sudhi to return to the Hindu fold like Gopinathan. It was not because of any threat from the Christian community, but the beneficiaries of conversion reconciled to the new environment and they did not have the ideological mooring in the Hindu culture for returning to Hinduism.

The case of those who were forcibly converted to Islam was different. Most of them were from the high castes and they cherished the Hindu ethos and culture, but were prevented from a 'come-back' both by the Muslim and the Hindu orthodoxy. To the Muslim, abandoning Allah and Prophet Mohamed was blasphemy, and the punishment for blasphemy was death. So a converted Muslim can go back to his original religion only at the risk of his life. Even if he overcame the Islamic threat, the Hindu orthodoxy would not take him back. To them he is permanently impure and can't be purified.

Interestingly, the only instance of converted Muslims undergoing Shudhi and rejoining the Hindu fold in their original caste too has happened in Kerala. They were the Nairs converted forcibly by Tipu Sultan's hordes in Malabar. These converts abandoned Islam after the death of Tipu in the battle at Srirangapatam with the British. But they were not fully accepted by the upper castes and were rebuked as Chelat (circumcised) Nairs and were considered outcastes by Brahmins and fellow Nairs. (The ritual of conversion to Islam was circumcision, cutting off the foreskin.) A bold social reformer, Chandu Nambiar, worked hard to break the barrier to integrate Chelat Nairs into the Hindu Nair mainstream and succeeded in removing the stigma. (Joseph Edamaruku in his Malayalam book "Ivar Mathanishedhikal")

Surprisingly, according to the Koran Sunnath Society founded by the noted Islamic theologian of Kerala, Chekanur Maulavi, circumcision has no place in Islam. Majid Cheruvati, the secretary of the Society writes: What is done in the name of religion is a punishment to the boys. At an age when they know nothing about religion, the boys are subjected to physical and mental torture. Nowhere in the Holy Koran this ritual is mentioned... (Keralasabdam weekly 9-11-06).

The intolerant Islamic fundamentalists who were enraged by the views of Chekanur Maulavi got him murdered. The CBI is still investigating the murder case. Now circumcision becomes useful for Islamic terrorists to separate men whom they suspect to be Hindus from a mixed crowd.

Coming back to conversion from circumcision, in the anti-conversion law enacted by some states the condition of inducement for changing religion is meaningless. No one will allow himself to be converted without gaining anything. It could be either material gain or promises of gains by the grace of another god. Both ways, conversion is undesirable and could only help in social tensions.

However, the scare that Hindus will become a minority because of conversion to other religions is unfounded. Christians who are accused of converting Hindus could not do much to increase their numbers; there is no increase in their percentage of the total population of free India. Muslims do register an increase, but that is not because of conversion from Hindus. The reason is unchecked proliferation due to illiteracy and backwardness. Irrespective of their religion, the prospering middle class in India has adopted the policy of limiting their family for their own well-being.

The policy of competitive population increase by Hindus by having more children is not advisable; it may take India to the first position in the world in strength of numbers surpassing China. But it will make India weaker and poorer as a nation.

N. Kunju is a National Council member of Indian Rationalist Association