Skip to main content


  • C. S. Adcock (a1)

Critics argue that the politics of religious rights creates the problem of religious minorities instead of resolving it. The history of debate over conversion in India reveals that appeals to religious freedom can obscure and even suppress struggles against inequality and injustice.

Hide All

1 Tejani Shabnum, Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890–1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Mahmood Saba, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, no. 2 (2012): 418–46.

2 For a full treatment of these historical debates, see Adcock C. S., The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

3 Examples include Madan T. N., “Freedom of Religion,” chap. 2 in Images of the World: Essays on Religion, Secularism, and Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 2952, and Sharma Arvind, Problematizing Religious Freedom (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 197212, 255–57. For further discussion see Neufeldt Ronald W., “To Convert or Not to Convert: Legal and Political Dimensions of Conversion in Independent India,” in Religion and Law in Independent India, ed. Baird Robert D., 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005), 381–99.

4 Neufeldt, “To Convert or Not to Convert,” 389.

5 South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre [hereafter, SAHRDC], “Anti-Conversion Laws: Challenges to Secularism and Fundamental Rights,” Economic and Political Weekly, January 12, 2008, 63–73; Jenkins Laura Dudley, “Legal Limits on Religious Conversion in India,” Law and Contemporary Problems 71, no. 2 (2008): 109–27; Mehta Pratap Bhanu, “Passion and Constraint,” Seminar, no. 521 (2003),

6 SAHRDC, “Anti-Conversion Laws,” 64.

7 Among the most infamous episodes in India since independence are the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992; the targeting of Christians in Dangs, Gujarat, in 1998; the killing of Christian missionary Graham Staines in Orissa in 1999; and the orchestrated violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

8 SAHRDC, “Anti-Conversion Laws,” 69. Jenkins notes that government inquiries have shifted their attention from those responsible for violence against religious minorities to the motives of Christian converts, implying that illegitimate conversions might be reasonable grounds for retribution. She refers specifically to the Justice D. P. Wadhwa Commission of Inquiry, organized by the Orissa state government to investigate the murder of Graham Staines (see note 7). Jenkins, “Legal Limits,” 117–18.

9 Anti-conversion legislation has been passed by Congress Party governments and enjoys the support of many progressive Indians. SAHRDC “Anti-Conversion Laws,” 63; Sarkar Sumit, “Christianity, Hindutva, and the Question of Conversions,” chap. 8 in Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 217–18.

10 Gajendragadkar P. B., Secularism and the Constitution of India (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1971), 72, quoted in Neufeldt, “To Convert or Not to Convert,” 382n5.

11 Neufeldt, “To Convert or Not to Convert,” 397. Critics have argued that the Constituent Assembly Debates clearly indicate that the Constitution's reference to “propagation” was intended to encompass the active pursuit of converts. See ibid., 383–88; SAHRDC, “Anti-Conversion Laws,” 66–67.

12 Scholars' critiques of the political discourse of Tolerance have focused on the 1930s and after. For examples, see Gould William, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Harper Susan Billington, In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans / Curzon Press, 2000); Kim Sebastian C. H., In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).

13 See Hardiman David, “Fighting Religious Hatreds,” chap. 7 in Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Chandhoke Neera, “Re-Presenting the Secular Agenda for India,” chap. 2 in Will Secular India Survive?, ed. Hasan Mushirul (Gurgaon, India: ImprintOne, 2004), 56.

14 For a discussion, see Pandey Gyanendra, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 235–38.

15 I follow Mendelsohn and Vicziany in using the term Untouchable, although few would use the term for themselves, because it keeps the subordinated condition of the persons named clearly in view, but without reflecting the specific political positions of alternate terms like “Harijan” or “Dalit.” I also follow their lead in capitalizing the term in order to indicate that it refers to the subjects of subordination and not to any polluted state that might be imputed to them. Mendelsohn Oliver and Vicziany Marika, The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25.

16 Contributing causes included the collapse of the unprecedented anti-colonial mobilization of the Khilafat-Noncooperation movement of 1919–1922 and new forms of political competition engendered by the constitutional reforms of 1919.

17 Savarkar's V. D.Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (New Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan, 2003) was published in 1923, while the Hindu Mahasabha was resuscitated in 1922 as a platform for Hindu political interests in U.P. (see note 18) and Punjab.

18 U.P., or the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, was roughly equivalent to the modern states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

19 Sikand Yoginder, “Arya Shuddhi and Muslim Tabligh: Reactions to Arya Samaj Proselytization (1923–1930),” chap. 5 in Religious Conversion in India: Modes, Motivations and Meanings, eds. Robinson Rowena and Clarke Sathianathan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 104–05.

20 An important contemporary document to point the finger at Arya Samaj shuddhi was the Kanpur Report, which was authored by a special committee appointed to investigate the severe Hindu-Muslim violence that shook the city of Kanpur in the United Provinces in March 1931. The report is reproduced in Barrier N. Gerald, Roots of Communal Politics (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1976).

21 Gandhi Mahatma, “Hindu-Muslim Tension: Its Cause and Cure,” in Young India, 1924–1926 (New York: Viking Press, 1927), 51.

22 “Editorial Reflections: Reclamation of Malkana Rajputs,” Vedic Magazine (Kangri), April 1923, 617.

23 Abhyudaya, Selections from the Vernacular Newspapers of the United Provinces [hereafter SVNUP], no. 17 of 1923 (May 5, 1923), 2.

24 “Aggressive Hinduism,” Vedic Magazine, May 1923, 667–70.

25 “Malkana Rajputs and Our Duty,” Vedic Magazine, May 1923, 688.

26 See also Rawat Ramnarayan S., Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 137, 145.

27 Edye E. H. H., Census of India, 1921, vol. 16, pt. 1—Report, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (Allahabad: Government Press, 1923), 153.

28 L. Middleton and S. M. Jacob, Census of India, 1921, vol. 15, pt. 1—Report, Punjab and Delhi (Lahore: Civil and Military Gazette, 1923), 181.

29 Kane Pandurang Vaman, History of Dharmasastra (Ancient and Mediæval Religious and Civil Law in India), vol. 4 (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1953), 267. The Vedas are the ancient texts of the Hindus.

30 Ibid., vol. 2, pt. 1 (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941), 374–75.

31 This was a matter of dispute within the Arya Samaj. My discussion focuses on the Gurukul Party of the Arya Samaj in Punjab and U.P.

32 Bayly Susan, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Dirks Nicholas B., Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

33 The term translates literally as “touchability,” and refers to forms of distinction practiced among upper caste Hindus, by Hindu and Muslim elites toward lowly castes and Untouchables, and by upper caste Hindus toward Muslims and other non-Hindus.

34 The Julahas of eastern U.P. provide one example of a Muslim campaign for respectability through self-purification. Gyanendra Pandey, “The Bigoted Julaha,” chap. 3 in Pandey Gyanendra, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 8384, 88.

35 Jaffrelot Christophe, India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 146; see also chap. 6.

36 Gyanendra Pandey has noted this categorial ambiguity: low caste movements regularly combined purifying practices with demands for the abolition of caste, rejection of the hierarchies implicit in Hindu temple worship with insistence on the right to own land, or adoption of the sacred thread with refusal to perform unpaid begār labor for the upper-castes. Pandey, Construction of Communalism, 88, 90–91. And see my discussion of “ritual-politics” in Adcock, The Limits of Tolerance.

37 On my use of this term, see note 15. The official designation today is “Scheduled Caste.”

38 On the colonial preference for symbolic representation see Zavos John, The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

39 For an introduction to colonial struggles to define Hinduism, see Llewellyn J. E., ed., Defining Hinduism: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2005).

40 Zavos John, “The Arya Samaj and the Antecedents of Hindu Nationalism,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 3, no. 1 (1999): 69. For example, the Al Bashir remarked: “the agitation of Hindus against the memorial of the Muslim League to the Census Commissioner was quite unjustifiable, seeing that in all social matters they treat the depressed classes as a separate community, as is evidenced by the fact that, like Muhammadans and Christian, they cannot be admitted into Hindus society without undergoing the shuddhi (purification) ceremony.” Al Bashir (Etawah), January 31, 1911, SVNUP, no. 3 of 1911 (January 21, 1911), 98.

41 On the consequences of the Pune Pact, see Tejani Shabnum, “Reflections on the Category of Secularism in India: Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Ethics of Communal Representation, c. 1931,” chap. 1 in The Crisis of Secularism in India, ed. Needham Anuradha Dingwaney and Rajan Rajeswari Sunder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), and Rawat Ramnarayan S., “Partition Politics and Achhut Identity: A Study of the Scheduled Castes Federation and Dalit Politics in UP, 1946–48,” chap. 3 in The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, ed. Kaul Suvir (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).

42 Swami Shraddhanand toured the western districts of U.P. to address large meetings of Chamars in 1923 and 1925. Police Abstracts of Intelligence, Secret, United Provinces [hereafter PAI], July 28, 1923, Criminal Intelligence Department Records (Lucknow), 309; PAI, Oct. 27, 1923, 528; PAI, Oct. 3, 1925, 408. Prominent Arya Samaj leaders from the so-called “Chamar” castes included Sukh Lal and Thakur Das, the former of whom in particular was a regular feature at shuddhi meetings throughout the 1920s. PAI, June 30, 1923, 367.

43 Rawat, Reconsidering Untouchability, 133–35.

44 Chowdhry Prem, Punjab Politics: The Role of Sir Chhotu Ram (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing, 1984), 135–37.

45 Ibid., 135–36.

46 PAI, Dec. 13, 1923, 580 (Moradabad); PAI, Oct. 20, 1923, 516 (Bareilly).

47 In 1923, Chamars' pursuit of shuddhi under Arya Samaj auspices was reportedly causing tension with Muslims in Saharanpur, Moradabad, Bijnor, and Bulandshahr, particularly when it was combined with aggressive efforts to secure access to common wells. PAI, June 9, 1923, 332 (Saharanpur); PAI, May 5, 1923, 20–25 (Moradabad); PAI, June 28, 1924, 204; PAI, June 2, 1923, 320 (Bijnor); PAI, Aug. 11, 1923, 430 (Bulandshahr); Sept. 26, 1925, 400 (Bulandshahr). In Roorkee, Saharanpur district, Muslims turned out in force to prevent Arya Samajists from bringing Chamar Arya Samajists to a municipal well, and a police guard was posted to keep the peace. PAI, April 21, 1923, 265. At Sambhal and Amroha in 1924, police were again required to keep the peace. PAI, May 10, 1924, 157. In Rampur, Aryas were boycotted for their efforts on behalf of Chamars. PAI, April 21, 1923, 265.

48 Gandhi, “Hindu-Muslim Tension,” 42n.

49 Mahatma Gandhi, “Untouchability and Swaraj,” in Young India, 601–02; “Untouchability and Its Implications,” in Young India, 652.

50 Gandhi, “Untouchability and Its Implications,” 651–52.

51 Ibid., 648–52.

52 Pandey Gyanendra, “Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism, 1919–1922,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Guha Ranajit and Spivak Gayatri Chakravorty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 276–78; Jaffrelot, Silent Revolution, 25.

53 Gandhi Mahatma, “Presidential Address” in The Encyclopaedia of the Indian National Congress, ed. Zaidi A. M. and Zaidi S. G., vol. 8, 1921–1924: India at the Crossroads (New Delhi: S. Chand, 1980), 341.

54 Gandhi, “Untouchability and Its Implications,” 648–53.

55 Gandhi, “Hindu-Muslim Tension,” 51.

56 Chandhoke, “Re-presenting the Secular,” 57.

57 On this point, see Menon Dilip M., The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India (Chennai: Navayana, 2006).

58 For examples see Balagangadhara S. N. and Roover Jakob De, “The Secular State and Religious Conflict: Liberal Neutrality and the Indian Case of Pluralism,” Journal of Political Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007): 6792; Claerhout Sarah and Roover Jakob De, “Conversion of the World: Proselytization in India and the Universalization of Christianity,” in Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets and Culture Wars, ed. Hackett Rosalind I. J. (London: Equinox Publishing, 2008), 5376; Sharma Arvind, “Comment,” Journal of Religious Ethics 28, no. 1 (2000): 157–64.

59 Jenkins, “Legal Limits”; Mehta, “Passion and Constraint.”

60 Legislation passed in Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh excludes what it calls reconversion to “native faiths”; in other states too, the law is not brought to bear on Hindus. SAHRDC, “Anti-Conversion Laws,” 64.

61 Today Hindu Nationalists use variations on the shuddhi rite first developed by the Arya Samaj, but it must be stressed that now that Untouchables are unequivocally regarded as Hindus, the political ambivalence and potential provocation of shuddhi is gone. It also bears emphasis that, unlike Hindu Nationalists today, Arya Samaj elites in the 1920s were not concerned to distinguish their own shuddhi activities from the proselytizing practices of Muslims or Christians. To the contrary, they insisted that religious freedom must include the right to proselytize. They continued to insist on this point during the Constituent Assembly Debates. Neufeldt, “To Convert or Not to Convert,” 388.

62 Jenkins, “Legal Limits,” 109.

63 Mehta, “Passion and Constraint,” 521.

64 The long and largely forgotten historical association between the politics of religious freedom and suppression of low caste rights includes exaggerated shows of concern for the legitimacy or authenticity of conversions by the poor. Viswanath Rupa, “The Emergence of Authenticity Talk and the Giving of Accounts: Conversion as Movement of the Soul in South India, ca. 1900,” Comparative Study of Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 120–41.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Law and Religion
  • ISSN: 0748-0814
  • EISSN: 2163-3088
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-law-and-religion
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 63 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 253 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.