January 1999
Cover Story

Conversions : A Warped Debate

Despite the letter and spirit of the law as laid down in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, giving every citizen the right to freely practice, profess and propagate his or her religion, much of the impassioned discourse around the issue of conversions today reveals inherent bias in a dominant section of the Indian population. To them the existence of this basic right granted to every citizen appears as  anathema. Quite apart from right– wing chauvinists, the fact that it raises hackles among more progressive sections, be they Gandhians or other radicals, the issue of religious conversion bears careful examination.

Opponents of conversion cloak their inherent antipathy to it by criticising the methods used by those in the conversion business, alleging that financial incentives and material considerations govern the decision of individuals and groups to a change of faith. 

Today this bogey of  forced conversions has been successfully raised by the RSS–VHP combine, to numb the Indian middle class mind from the horrors of violence and terror unleashed on Christians and Muslims in the far–flung villages of Gujarat. The bald denial by the Gujarat state director general of police (DGP), C.P. Singh that any forced conversions have taken place have not stopped the avenging squads that are heaping terror and humiliation on large sections of the Indian population. The stamp of legitimacy to this warped discourse was recently given by none less than the liberal mukhota (mask) of the BJP, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who called for a national debate on conversions instead of assuring the brutalised population of Gujarat adequate state protection against violence and terror. 

The manipulated discourse plays into the decades’ old fear of the upper caste Hindu – approximately a tenth  of the population — that the lower castes are being seduced away by ‘alien’ faiths. But little concern is ever shown to the material and social indignities that have compelled groups and individuals to exercise this choice. This apprehension of the sanatani Hindu also stems from a deep–rooted fear of loss of majority status: once viewed as either distinct from the upper caste Hindu —  or at least not a permament adjunct, as 22 per of SCs and STs and over 50 per cent of the other backward castes (OBCs) have so far been — the “majority” status of Hindus as one single, dominant, hegemonic community comes into serious question. 

There is an even more fundamental basis for the near–pathological reaction to conversions among the adherents of this world–view. Conversion undermines the theological  underpining of upper caste, sanatani Hindu faith in birth as the sole determinant of social station and position in life and notions of the ‘pure’ and the polluted.

That a decision towards a change of faith can ever be perceived as a positive move towards a life of dignity, if not an entirely egalitarian existence is not a factor or a possibility that a sanatani Hindu faith can easily accept. 

But for those committed to a plural society based on equity and justice,  religious conversion is not seen as a threat. In India, especially, conversions have been occuring for centuries, the assimilation or absorption of indigenous tribes into jatis by the sanatani Hindu faith being the first example of mass conversions.  Thereafter, individuals and groups, mostly from the oppressed castes, have through the centuries opted to convert to Christianity or Islam. In modern day India, conversions have been a matter of political choice towards social emancipation by a significant section of Dalits. 

On the flip side is the role of the other side, that is the faiths to which persons of oppressed caste origin are converting and the motives and attitudes of the clergy and other agencies of these faiths that effect these conversions. Theologically speaking,  scriptural Christianity and Islam do enjoin on their followers to convert the non–believers and save the “heathens” from hell and damnation. Conversions for the missionary then is a sublime duty. The missionary believes he is spreading the only true faith in the interests of human salvation. Undoubtedly, this worldview posits a superiority of faith vis a vis the non–believer. 

However, though modern Christianity may have come to the third world in its later avatar as an adjunct of colonial brute force, and latter–day Islam through medieval invasions, both Islam and Christianity arrived on Indian shores hundreds of years earlier through traders. Christianity in 58 A.D. and Islam soon after its birth through the Arab settlers on the west and south coasts. 

Many conversions to Islam or Christianity in the modern period of history have also coincided with the passage of emancipatory laws liberating bonded labour that allowed oppressed sections the freedom to exercise choice in the matter of faith. These sections, then, exercised this choice, after, rightly or wrongly, perceiving either Islam or Christianity to be more egalitarian than Hinduism’s oppressive caste system. 

There were a host of lower caste conversions during the second half of the 19th cent in Travancore, for instance. Educational endeavours of missionaries and the resultant more equal status played a crucial role in their choice of faith, not by inducements but through a perceived existence of equality. For example, the first low–caste person, in 1851, to walk on the public road near the temple at Tiruvalla in 1851 was a Christian. Around 1859,thousands became Christians in the midst of other emancipatory struggles in the region where they were supported by missionaries against oppressive upper caste traditions: for example the struggle of the Nadars on the right of their women to cover the upper part of their body. 

Or, take this example. On the Malabar coast in Kerala, large scale conversions to Islam did not take place during the invasions by Tipu Sultan but during the 1843–1890 period and were directly linked to the fact that in 1843 slavery was abolished in this region. As a result, large numbers from the formerly oppressed castes bonded in slavery by upper caste Hindus moved over to Islam, which they perceived, rightly or wrongly to be a religion of equality and justice.
In 1929, Dr. Babasaheb  Ambedkar advised Indian ‘untouchables’ to embrace any other religion that would regard them as human beings, and following this 12 untouchables  from a village near Nasik embraced Islam. In 1935, he strongly criticised Hindu scriptures that defined Dalits as lowest of the low. Under Ambedkar’s inspiration there was a mass movement of conversion when half a million untouchables (Dalits) embraced Buddhism on October 14, 1956 at Nagpur.

 This is a factor that needs to surface prominently in the current debate. Not surprisingly, dominated as the discourse continues to be by sanatani Hindu concerns and fears, this has not happened. On the contrary, ulterior motives are being sought to justify the fact of conversions. The reaction of Swami Aseemananda is a typical example of this. Speaking to a national weekly, on the VHP’s efforts to “popularise” Hinduism in the district he said, “We are not interested in poverty alleviation or development activities. We are only trying to alleviate the tribals spiritually.”
The sudden concern of columnists of leading periodicals appears to centre around the alleged monetary incentives and inducements offered by missionaries. But there is no examination of the developmental work in education, health and other areas that is undertaken by Christian religious persons in our remotest districts.

Lastly, the forced Ghar Vapsi  movement launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is quite obviously a sanatani Hindu project as it has an intrinsic element of “purifying” the “impure” who have drifted and are being pulled back; if so, a pertinent question to ask the storm–troopers of the new Brahmanical order is: which caste are the “re–converted” being given entry to?

Teesta Setalvad

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