By Dasu Krishnamoorty
Conversions are in the news. Like Kashmir, they will stay there for eternity. Just as rulers in Pakistan derive their legitimacy and power from the Kashmir issue, political parties in India, now the media too, test the potential of conversions to yield a variety of dividends. Opposition to it helps the BJP to garner votes from uncommitted sections of the majority community. By supporting it, the Congress moves closer to the religious minorities and the Dalits. This political myopia hampers the country's development and growth in non-political sectors thrusting on the exchequer the cost of bandhs, morchas, rath yatras and more importantly communal strife.
Ms. Jayalalithaa put conversions on the front page by enacting legislation banning forcible and fraudulent conversions. You may think that the conversion law the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed is new. It is not. Nearly forty years ago, the Congress passed anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Arunachal Pradesh enacted it in 1978. Indira Gandhi was in power when her government asked State governments and Union territory administrations to prepare a legal framework for barring conversions on the lines of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa laws. This was a sequel to the conversions in Meenakshipuram in 1981. Even before Independence, many princely states like Raigarh, Sarguja, Udaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kalahandi and Kota passed such laws. These laws presumably were a response to the intensity and persistence of conversion activity.
The Tamil Nadu law has naturally upset the minorities' organizations. The Global Council of Indian Christians demanded its immediate withdrawal and said it was in violation of Article 25 of the Constitution. The Indian Muslim League, descendant of the same organization that planned and executed the Direct Action of December 16, 1946 in Calcutta, called the law a serious assault on the right to profess, practice and propagate religion guaranteed by the Constitution. Several opposition parties criticized the measure as violative of the spirit of the Constitution.
This view is very flawed. The Constitution is a basic document that spells out broadly the rights and responsibilities of the citizens and the state machinery. Freedom of religion is one of the rights conferred on the citizens. Article 25 of the Constitution grants to citizens the right to freedom of religion and adds that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. The right to interpret these terms rests with the judiciary. Additionally, the exercise of these rights is limited by the demands of public order, morality and health concerns. The right to freedom of religion does not include the license to build a temple in the middle of a public thoroughfare or to run down another religion.
To end all speculation on the meaning of freedom of religion, the Supreme Court (Rev. Stanislaus vs. the State of Madhya Pradesh) referred to the term 'propagate' and said, “We have no doubt that it is in this sense that the word 'propagate' has been used in Article 25(1), for what the Article 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 tenets.” The words 'in this sense' meant the sense in which the Shorter Oxford Dictionary and the Century Dictionary have used the term.
The English media too endorsed the minority sentiment. The Hindu (October 8, 2002) editorial condemns Ms. Jayalalithaa's action and asks 'what really constitutes force or allurement?' The answer to this question is as simple as the question itself. Several laws are full of terms like 'reasonable'. What is reason for one can be dogma for another. But there are courts in this country, which have been grappling with such expressions every day. The Hindu thinks that the anti-conversion law is a 'death knell even to genuine activity of ministering the poor, the sick and the illiterate.' How? It does not explain. But the country is teeming with hundreds of organizations that minister to the poor, the sick and the illiterate without converting their beneficiaries to any religion.
The Indian Express says, “On the face of it, the Jayalalithaa government's new ordinance banning conversions through force or fraud is entirely unexceptionable.” It says the same thing as The Hindu. “Force and fraud suddenly become grey areas mined with ambiguity.” In case of ambiguity, an aggrieved person can always approach any court from the court of first instance to the Supreme Court whose business it is to remove the greyness of texts in laws. The Hindustan Times does not think that the recent conversions of Dalits to Christianity in the Madurai area are enough justification to pass the law. Is anyone bothered that the Dalit is losing his identity?
The critics seem to say that the Bill is good if it does not cover conversions. Aladi Aruna, (Frontline, December 6, 2002) says, “On the face of it, the Bill appears to be impartial, undiscriminating and sustainable in a court of law.” But she says the very purpose of the Bill is to muzzle the rights of the minorities in respect of conversions. How can you muzzle a right that does not exist at all? The Constitution has not conferred any such right. These concerns of the minorities are artificial because not a single case had been booked under these laws either in Orissa or Madhya Pradesh for the last three and a half decades (Walter Fernandes, The Hindu, August 22, 2002). Further, in a democracy, an elected legislature has every right to pass a law by a majority vote. Aladi Aruna admits that the Bill had won an 'unassailable' majority. The Supreme Court had said that while adoption of a religion is freedom of conscience, conversion would impinge on the freedom of choice granted to all citizens alike.
It is naïve to believe that one of the greatest and oldest religions in the world would not resent the assaults on its solidity. If conversion is legitimate, how is resistance to it illegitimate? The much talked about Article about freedom of religion clearly says that such exercise should not disturb public order. Read what Sultan Shahin, well-known columnist (The Times of India, February 11, 1999) says, “It is rather disingenuous to suggest that conversions do not matter to them (the Hindus). Swami Vivekananda was no Sanghi; nor I presume was Mahatma Gandhi. But both great minds were exercised at the prospect of the Hindus decreasing in numbers as a result of the conversion activities of the Christian missionaries supported by foreign imperialists.”
This is what Mahtma Gandhi said about conversions: “There is nothing but vilification of Hinduism in the books distributed by the missionaries. The missionaries are vendors of goods who target the most susceptible when they are most vulnerable, using not just dialogue but allurement and violence. If I had the power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytizing.” Gandhiji's letters also mentioned the forcible conversion of Hindus by rebellious Mappilas of Malabar in 1921.What the legislatures of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and now Tamil Nadu did was to follow the lead of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Neogy committee appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru not only recommended a law against conversions but also pointed out how the minorities were behind a movement to fight for secession from India. The terrorist activity in the northeast is a continuation of that movement Neogy committee referred to in its report. The Neogy logic is not farfetched. History has provided us the example of American missionaries first converting the indigenous people in East Timor to Christianity and then successfully inciting them to fight for secession from Indonesia.
It is difficult to talk of conversions without arousing extreme passions that are bichromatic, black and white. If you oppose conversions, you are anti-minorities and therefore communal. If you support them, you are secular and liberal. There are no other shades. Grey, for instance. In the end, the debate comes to the beginning, that is, majority/minority divide. Political and media discourse in this country is so intensely charged with distrust and hatred that even innocuous communication becomes impossible. A simple statement that it is good for the minorities to enjoy the good will of the majority can yield and actually yielded a hundred distorted interpretations.
Conversions are continuing. That is the context for the Tamil Nadu law. A Hindustan Times report (Chennai, October 6, 2002) says, “The law, bound to warm saffron hearts, appears to have been a reaction to the recent mass conversion of poor Dalits in Madurai by the Seventh Day Adventist Chapter.” Another Hindustan Times report (Chennai, April 1, 2002) says, “The Pondicherry government has ordered an inquiry into alleged forcible conversions to Christianity, after six prisoners had formally lodged a complaint with the state government.” In Chattisgarh, conversions are taking place with the blessings of a government led by the Congress. The Church regards all tribals as its legitimate constituency. If some overzealous VHP or Bajrang Dal converts a dozen tribals to Hinduism, the English media lose their cool.
After the minorities have already set up a precedent of not respecting the verdict of the Supreme Court in Rev. Stanislaus case, where is the guarantee that they will abide by it in the case of Babri Masjid? Such are the power and privileges that the minorities enjoy that even the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekanananda pleaded with the Calcutta High Court to declare the mission as a separate “cult or religion of Sri Ramakrishna.” But the Supreme Court (July 2, 1995) declared that the mission was not separate from the Hindu religion and therefore did not enjoy the protection of Article 30(1) of the Indian constitution. The Jains also tried to do it in vain. There is now almost a stampede by victims of discrimination to be considered as minority groups. In Andhra Pradesh, groups denied the benefits of reservations are converting to Christianity to claim royal front-door entry into minority educational institutions.
Critics of the law silence critics of conversions claiming that the missionaries are serving the poor and the illiterate. This is praiseworthy but is it necessary to convert the beneficiaries to Christianity? Does it not amount to saying that we serve you only if you become a Christian? If conversions can eliminate poverty and illiteracy, why economic planning and why Amartya Sen? Are all Christian countries rich? What about Ethiopia? What is the economic condition of a majority of Christians in India? They have been converted but their poverty did not disappear. Except that they go to a church instead of a temple, most of the Indian Christians are no different from the Hindu 'pagans'. All those billions of dollars spent on conversions can directly, without the mediation of God, go to eliminate poverty.
There is also an unfounded notion that service to humanity is an exclusive Christian virtue. Neerja Choudhary, political editor of The Indian Express (February 2, 1999) asks: “Why cannot those convinced of the Hindu way of life run a network of educational institutions and health facilities as do the Christians?” It takes my breath away that such a senior journalist does not know the world outside her editorial precincts. Sathya Saibaba, the godman, has endowed a university with several colleges affiliated to it and a super specialties hospital where heart surgeries are free for the poor. He has brought water to 700 villages, something governments haven't done. Swami Agnivesh who is devoted to the liberation of bonded labor and has won the Magsasay Award for that, is not a Christian missionary.
The Ramakrishna Mission operates an extensive network of schools and hospitals; the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan runs hundreds of schools and colleges; Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Research Institute has welfare schemes in 500 villages in Chitrakoot district of Madhya Pradesh; The Tirupathi Temple has two universities and scores of colleges all over the country, not to speak of hospitals. The much-maligned Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh runs 45,000 schools for the poor, many of them in tribal areas, without converting any one to any religion. P.D.Chitalangia'a Friends of Tribals Society runs more than 1,000 single teacher schools in tribal areas. Then there are Banabasi Siksha Kendras the RSS runs. There is no conversion activity in any of these institutions. Is this list enough, Neerja?
Though conversions look like a matter between the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians and the Dalits, in reality they are not. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also is in it up to its neck. This commission has asked Secretary of State Colin Powell to include India in “Countries of Particular Concern.'” To what do we owe this interference in our internal affairs? Unfortunately, some Indian citizens voluntarily appeared before this commission to complain against their country. Several leaders of minorities' communities and human rights activists appeared before the commission. Don't ask me how the State department of a secular country has a department dealing with international religious freedom.
One Christian leader, Secretary-General of the Indian Christian Council, John Dayal, who appeared before that commission said at that time, “many believe that it is the jurisdiction of the UN. We merely seek the implementation of constitutional guarantees and the rule of law.” He also wanted to “reach out to the powerful and vibrant Indian community in the US.” John could have achieved this noble goal by lobbying directly with the Indian American community. As a journalist, John knows that by his action he is keeping the door ajar for outsiders to arbitrate. The Indian Christian Council could have waited on our own President at that time, K. R. Narayanan. Since it is a matter of implementing constitutional guarantees, what better forum is there than the Supreme Court of India? And John being a well-known and respected newsman and editor has the country's secular press on his side. Why does he need to appear before an alien forum? How does he believe that an American institution can ensure the implementation of constitutional guarantees in India?
Conversions have an unedifying history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “Christianity from its beginning, tended towards an intolerance that was rooted in self-consciousness. Christianity consistently practiced an intolerant attitude in its approach towards Judaism and paganism as well as heresy in its own ranks.” The advent of Christianity into entire continents, the Americas, vast parts of Africa, some parts of Asia razed local cultures to the ground.
Let me end by quoting Sultan Shahin again: “The world would be a much safer, happier place if Christians were to convert themselves to Christianity.” What he left unsaid was “Don't do to others what you don't want done to you.” The Hindus are not asking anyone to join them; they are only asking their own folk not to leave them. Let not conversions unleash a new phenomenon of Hindu-Christian riots. The Supreme Court had made a clear distinction between the adoption of a religion and a conversion.
Let us all become Indians first. All other identities based on caste and religion can wait. They are concerns of each distinct community. Religion has lost its bonding power after politicians have begun to exploit it for electoral ends. Any Constitution that offers space to religious identities is a negation of secularism. The moment we give primacy to our religious identities, we disown our India First identity.
© Dasu Krishnamoorty.