By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
December 23, 2014
Yet another New Year will be upon us in exactly a week with the rulers of 1.2 crore Indians still groping for a national identity. Being Indian isn’t good enough for them. As a Hindu, I cannot but feel the pretended battle against dire cultural aggression is really only an attempt to increase a small group’s power by smothering India’s rich diversity in drab and deadly uniformity.
The public doesn’t want it. It’s the mischief of a coterie — Derek O’Brien’s “bigots in Nagpur” and their allies — to increase its clout. This coterie feels emboldened only because Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government does nothing to discourage the perception that Hindutva is its ultimate goal. Hence Operation Dharam Parivartan, the justification of “Ghar Wapsi” by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Mohan Bhagwat, the threat to establish 543 Vishwa Hindu Parishad units across West Bengal, the Hindu Mahasabha’s demand for Nathuram Godse’s statue in all our cities and the silly move to rename December 25 “Good Governance Day”.
Aurangzeb’s tunnel-vision regime destroyed the Mughal Empire by trying to propagate Islam through similar impositions. No one would object if the Sangh Parivar recommended effective measures to detect and check illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Nor could anyone complain about legal steps to curb the suspected inflow of funds, said to be from West Asia, for what looks like a massive countrywide campaign to build or upgrade mosques and madrasas. But let Amit Shah, the BJP president who says “BJP is not supportive of any forceful conversions,” prove his good faith by ensuring the government and its agencies do not condone moves to stamp out other faiths.
There is something stagnant about people whose minds are so caught in the dead waters of times long past. Their obsession recalls a novel — I think it was Tarak Nath Gangopadhyaya’s Swarnalata written in 1873 — I read as a schoolboy where two simple villagers discuss the attractions of converting. If I remember right after more than 60 years, one man says that by joining the Brahmo Samaj he will be able to marry an educated teacher. That’s nothing, retorts his companion: a Christian gets a memsahib for a bride.
Mr Bhagwat would disapprove of both. If his RSS could, it would demand a law with retrospective effect annulling all past conversions. They would call it Freedom of Religion Act because legislation on the subject faithfully follows the Orwellian Newspeak which means the opposite of what it says. It became the official language of white-ruled South Africa. If the apartheid regime enacted a law to protect blacks, everyone knew it was intended to exploit blacks.
Similarly, the small print of the “freedom of religion” acts that Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government enacted or enforced made clear that the purpose was to deny that freedom to all save Hindus. Arunachal Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act 1978 piously specified that “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to any other religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” In practice, it encouraged mobs to set fire to scores of huts that served as humble churches and chapels.
Contrary to today’s propaganda, the British Indian authorities did not favour conversion. Christian missionaries had a much freer hand in China than in India. Nevertheless, several princely states adopted laws forbidding conversion to Christianity. The Constituent Assembly discussed such a restriction at great length but Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel decided against inserting it into the Constitution. With his ecumenical outlook and equal fondness for Abide With Me and Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, Mahatma Gandhi also didn’t think it right either to stop someone from changing his faith or to forbid any religion from propagating its views.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Parliament took up the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill. Six years later, it considered the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill. Legislators were less bigoted in those days when there was no militant saffron lobby and both measures had to be dropped for lack of support. The Minorities Commission wasn’t alone in opposing Janata’s proposed Freedom of Religion Bill in 1979 which, too, was abandoned because of its evident bias.
However, in 1967-68, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh enacted the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 and the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam 1968 respectively. Tamil Nadu’s State Assembly subsequently adopted the gubernatorial Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance promulgated in October 2002. Like Arunachal’s law, each of these acts defines “government”, “conversion”, “indigenous faith”, “force”, “fraud” and “inducement”. All four laws make forced conversion a cognisable offence under Sections 295A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code which already made malice and deliberate intention to hurt the sentiments of others a penal offence punishable by imprisonment and fines.
Contrary to what the RSS chief claims publicly without being contradicted, India is not a “Hindu Rashtra”. The Prime Minister has a constitutional duty to advise Mr Bhagwat that no matter what the personal and collective beliefs of BJP leaders, the Constitution will have to be amended to fit that description. If Mr Bhagwat is allowed to carry out his promise to “bring back our brothers who have lost their way”, the contemptuous term “Rice Christian” in our vocabulary will one day be matched by the no less despicable “Ration Card Hindu” or “BPL (Below Poverty Line) Card Hindu”.
Those who want India to progress will pray this New Year’s Eve for wisdom so that Hindus are confident enough of our ancient moorings not to need to bribe and bully to inflate our numbers artificially in 2015.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author