The missionaries in Kerala are shocked to note that their mission in the state is on the verge of collapse. They had converted thousands of Hindus by spending crores of rupees during the INC-led UPA rule at the Centre and LDF/UDF rule in Kerala. Dalits, backward and poor families were the prime targets of Jesuit missions and evangelists who lured the underprivileged Hindus to Christianity with the help of NGOs and other social organisations. But now many Dalit families, troubled by widespread discrimination in Christianity, are returning to the Hindu fold.
These trends are most common in the states of southern India, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This year, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) began holding discussions on religious conversions across the country after its apex body, the Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal, met in Prayagraj on 20 January.
VHP secretary-general Milind Parande had said in 2019, “25,000 Muslims and Christians were reconverted in 2018,” he said, adding that figures for 2019 were yet to be compiled
Earlier in Kerala, 1,335 Dalits, of which 660 were Christians, had officially changed their religion back to Hinduism in 2015.
Most of those who came back to Hinduism were those who had converted in the previous decade under the influence of Christian missionaries. In Kerala, it is necessary to get conversions notified in the gazette to make the exercise legal.
Kerala is witnessing this reversal of fortunes of the missionaries despite virtual state patronage that Christianity enjoys. In October last year, social media users had burst into protests when they came to know the state government was offering jobs especially to those who had converted to the Christian fold.
The sinister conversion drive was allegedly happening under the aegis of the Kerala State Development Corporation for Christian Converts from Scheduled Castes and the Recommended Communities Ltd.
Dalits returning home, tired of discrimination
According to the figures of the Kerala government last year, the trend of ghar wapsi has been increasing year after year. As of July 2016, 780 conversions were registered in Kerala. Of these, 402 were cases of converting from Christian to Hindu.
Former Hindu Dalits constitute 95% of the total Christian population in the country. Many of these people, fed up with the discrimination they had faced in Hinduism too, had turned Christians when induced by the missionaries.
Having converted, however, they were still denied religious rights. They did not find social equality in their new community either. In fact, these people allege they saw more discrimination in the Christian fold.
In the 19 months before July 2016 in Kerala, the highest number of 1,189 Christians converted back to Hinduism whereas 840 Hindus moved to either Christianity or Islam.
Early this year, a Muslim family had discontinued water supply to the residents of a Dalit colony near Valanchery in the district. Yet, the number of people leaving Islam is less because those who do so are afraid of murder.
N Ravindran of the organisation of ‘Converted’ Christians of Kerala says, “The situation of Dalits who have become Christians is very bad. When we were Hindus, we were in a better position. We are Dalits and untouchables despite being Christians now.”
Ravindran says, “We get nothing except help in education and 1% reservation in jobs whereas Hindu Dalits, being Scheduled Castes, get government help from education to housing, marriage and treatment.”
Sources said when Dalits, after becoming Christians, found that there was no change in their social and economic condition, they thought it was better to go back to Hinduism. Kerala Christians mostly practise endogamy; the arranged marriages are almost never held between a boy and a girl of different sub-castes.
Further, there is no institutional mechanism in Christianity to deal with caste discrimination.
In 2016, the murder of a poor Dalit Catholic man, who had married a woman belonging to an upper-caste Syrian Christian family, had fuelled protests across Kerala. Kevin P Joseph, 26, a member of the Vijayapuram Diocese, was murdered in what appeared a case of honour killing on 28 May 2016, five days after he married 20-year-old Neenu Chacko of an affluent Christian family in Kollam district against the wishes of some members of her family, ucanews.com reported.
Social reforms intensify among Hindus
Former Dalit Christians organisation head Shins Peter says, “There is a general perception among people that Hindu society is more tolerant; so social changes happen more easily in Hindu society than in Christians and Muslims.”
Earlier, the situation of Dalits was bad, but now there has been a rapid change, Peter says.
In the new generation of upper castes, all castes are equal, the activist says. In contrast, Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam are looked down upon, Peter alleges. “Besides, reservation is a big reason why being in the Hindu fold is considered beneficial.”
“The mainstream section will not make any matrimonial alliance with us. The number of Dalit priests in Kerala is really low. There are many instances of the parish opposing the appointment of Dalit priests,” Peter said. He added that some Christian cemeteries had separate burial place for Dalit Christians.
A source in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs said the Narendra Modi government had made life difficult for NGOs involved in religious conversion illegally with foreign funds. “The whole game the missionaries played for the past 70 years is now coming to a nought,” he said.