The Assam Tribune online
Guwahati, Sunday, June 4, 2006

Religious conversions and religious freedom
— Poonam I Kaushish
India is caught up in a battle royale between the Gods. At one end, our political undatas are busy churning the reservation cauldron in their reckless pursuit of OBC nirvana. At the other, the holy fanatics are busy ‘decoding’ the blockbuster film Da Vinci Code. Amidst this clash of ‘holier than thou’ fervour has come a religious benedict from the Vatican. Which has exposed the ‘unholy’ testament of the sacred Holy See and its Pope and threatens to destroy the body politic of the nation with international overtones. Where even angels fear to tread!

It all started with Pope Benedict XVI’s provocative remarks out of the blue condemning India’s attempts to “legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right to religious freedom and the disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of the nation.” Even as the country rubbed its eyes in disbelief, New Delhi appropriately summoned the Vatican’s envoy and curtly ticked him off. Reiterating India’s secular and democratic credentials, the Pointiff was told to lay off India’s internal matter.

The Pope’s statement comes against the backdrop of Rajasthan becoming the sixth State to enact the anti-conversion law. Already, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Arunchal Pradesh, Chhattigarh, and Gujarat have laws that bar conversions but allow re-conversions to Hinduism. Jharkhand has declared its intention to enact a similar law. It is another matter that all these States are presently BJP-ruled. Remember, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa enacted the law under Congress rule.

Is the Pontiff justified in stating that India is bereft of a religious conscience? That it lacks freedom of religion? Given the fact that xenophobic, racial, and religious killings are a part of the western world; that post World War II, peace was more a religious rather than a political issue. The answer is a resounding no. Since Independence, the Christian minority totalling about 2.34 per cent of the population has enjoyed perfect harmony with their Hindu brethren. Even as history has stood testimony to occasional Hindu-Muslim clashes there have been no Hindu-Christian quarrels.

Nevertheless, how does one explain the rape of the nuns in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, the burning of chapels, howsoever kachche, in Dangs, Gujarat, and the murder of the Australian missionary Grahm Staines and his children in Manoharpur, Orissa? Dismiss it as religious xenophobia? An orchestrated political conspiracy? Or is it the outcome of a raging feud by the Sangh Parivar over re-conversions across the country. What is the truth?

Clearly, ‘religious conversion has become the most exploited and explosive social and political issue in India. The modus operandi is simple. Ignorant Dalits or tribals are lured to Christianity, with the promise that it would free them from caste bondage.’ (It’s another matter that it fails to deliver them from caste-oppression.) Add to this economic lollipops – jobs, schools, health facilities and social benefits – dignity, self-respect – one is face to face with instances of fraudulent conversion.

Turn North, South, East or West, the story is the same. Religion is turning out to be a question of money, big money. Flush with funds from their headquarters in the United States, a number of church groups are allegedly converting hundreds of Hindus to Christianity in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka by giving them money and jobs. In Kashmir, Christian missionaries are accused of trying to convert earthquake-affected people under the garb of providing relief by way of monetary incentives, free gas cylinders, water bottles, audio cassettes and a copy of the New Testament in Urdu. In Arunachal Pradesh, which had banned religious conversions long back, about 50 per cent of the State’s population is said to have been converted to Christianity by missionaries operating from neighbouring States Assam and Nagaland by deception and allurements.

The tragedy of it all is Hindu, Muslim and, now Christian fundamentalism does not occur in a vacuum. It has a context. Of political and intellectual double-speak. Thus, pseudo-secularism has become a populist stock in trade. Wherein secularism has degenerated from its lofty ideal of equal respect for all religions to a cheap diabolical strategy for creating minority vote-banks – first the Muslim minority and now the Christian, the second largest community in India.

The genesis of this religious vote-bank politics has been reflected at great length in the nearly forgotten but crucial report of high-level committee set-up in 1956, to primarily enquire into increasing conversions of tribals into Christianity. This five-member Committee, headed by M B Niyogi, dealt exhaustively with the psychosis of conversion, its political background and implications, and meaning of secularism. The Committee’s scope was later enlarged to “political and extra-religious objectives; a thorough review of the question from the historical and other points of view.”

Significantly, no less than Gandhi condemned mass conversions at a Unity Conference in Delhi in 1924. Later he said: “it is not unusual to find Christianity synonymous with denationalisation and Europeanisation.” Further in 1933, he added: “I could understand the Muslim organisations doing this... but the Christian mission claims to be a purely spiritual effort. It hurts me to find the Christian bodies vying with the Muslims and the Sikhs in trying to add to the number of their fold. It seemed to be an ugly performance and a travesty of religion.” The Lok Sabha too debated a Private Member’s Bill, Backward Communities Religious Protection Bill, moved by Prakash Vir Shastri in March 1960.

In fact, Article 25 of our Constitution which lays down the tenets of freedom of religion has an important rider. It specifies the limits within which religious freedom can be exercised. All persons, it states are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely profess, practise and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health. Dispute, if any, can only be on the interpretation of the expression “propagate any religion”. Suffices to say that the State will not allow its citizens to do whatever they please in the name and under the guise of religion. Clearly, the political parties debunk Article 25 in quest of minority votes.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court settled this matter in 1973 wherein it distinguished between the right to proselytize and the right to convert. Upholding the Constitutional validity on anti-conversion laws enacted by Orissa and Madhya Pradesh in 1967-68, it ruled: “what the Constitution grants is not the right to convert another person to one’s own religion, but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenders.” The Court also observed that organised conversion was anti-secular and that respect for all religions was the essence of India’s secularism.

On the flip side, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal too need to be reprimanded for playing on Hindu religious sentiments. Benefitting the BJP, whose vote-bank enabled it to snowfall from 2 to 193 MPs in the Lok Sabha on a Hindutva wave in 1998. They established groups of armed youth, called Raksha Sena, in every village of Chhattisgarh, in order to stop conversions to Christianity. And where conversion had taken place another movement called the Ghar Wapsi (“return home”) was launched in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Orrisa for reconverting the tribal Christian back to Hinduism.

Many ask: why should religious conversions be treated differently from other kinds of conversions? When political parties attempt to convert votes with wild promises and the State goes all out to woo the Naxalites back into mainstream society, are these exercises not fraudulent?