June 1999

Secularism or conversions

Adoption of a new faith is one thing, converting someone to it is quite another

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has given a timely call for a national debate on conversions as they are one 
 of the basic causes of communal tension in the country. The opposition parties have, as usual, opposed this call and have in stead demanded, as Congress spokesperson Girija Vyas has put it, a national debate on preserving the secular character of the Indian republic.

In fact, the two are two sides of the same problem. Let us therefore consider the so–called secular character of our Republic first.

The Preamble of the Constitution declares India to be a secular State and Article 25 spells out its content thus: “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.” However, the next part of the Article makes discrimination between Hindus and non–Hindus by excluding the latter from the reformatory authority of the State. Furthermore, article 30 of the Constitution gives religious minorities “the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” Religious minorities, therefore, enjoy more freedom in managing their educational institutions than others. These provisions clearly constitute infringement of the principle of equal entitlement enshrined in Article 25. They make the Constitution and our republic pseudo–secular.

Granted that these exceptions to the principle of equal entitlement to religious freedom were made with the best of intentions, namely, to dispel apprehensions, if any, from the minds of India’s religious minorities about any domination by the majority community so that they would, of their own free will, join the national mainstream and promote national integration. That, however, does not absolve the Constitution and the republic from being pseudo–secular.

What is the most regrettable is that the said best of intentions did not pave the desired way. On the contrary, the greater freedoms granted to the religious minorities are being abused by them to protect, project and strengthen their separatism under the garb of separate identities. And the appeasement policies of the non–BJP–Sena political parties nourish that separatism. Thus, the Constitution and the republic that are already pseudo–secular in form, have actually become anti–secular in practice.

A word about the right to propagate religion would be proper here. According to the Supreme Court judgement of 1977 (Stainislaus v/s State of MP), “The right to propagate one’s religion means the right to communicate a person’s belief to another person or to expose the tenets of that faith, but would not include the right to ‘convert’ another person to the former’s faith.” But, Christian missionaries claim conversion to be their fundamental right and their appeasers support them. This goes against the secularism envisaged by our constitution.

So far, we have considered the question of secularism and conversions from the point of view of the provisions of our Constitution. But it can also be considered in the light of the theories of secularism.

The classical theory of secularism comes from the West, where conflict between the State and the Church regarding jurisdiction over human life led to the division between temporal and sacredotal functions and the giving of all secular functions, including secular education, to the State and all spiritual functions to the Church. This, in its full form, means separation of the school from the Church and of the Church from the State. To give religious minorities the right to establish educational institutions and to give them greater autonomy in their administration than permissible to the majority community, which is what Article 30 (1) does, is against the ideal of secularism as explained above. And when these educational institutions are used, overtly or covertly, to convert people of other faiths, it is bound to become a serious cause of inter–religious conflicts.

It is alleged, not without reason, that through conversions, separatist tendencies are fostered among the converts. This was the finding of the Niyogi Committee in the past and of the study undertaken by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Delhi, recently in 1992–93, which recorded that the curriculum followed in minority–managed educational institutions “was oriented to a culture of isolation of the community.” 
This is direct intervention by religion in the political sphere of the state and flagrant violation of the principle of secularism. As per the aforesaid theory, religious organisations should be banned from running educational institutions. If anyone wants to do humanitarian or welfare work, he may do it totally independently of religious organisation. That would be the real test of his motive also. Article 26 of the constitution gives every religious denomination the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes. Whatever religious preaching it proposes to do, should be done only from there. Educational institutions should not be used for the purpose. Article 30 of the constitution is unnecessary, anti–secular and quite often anti–national too.

The western theory of secularism has been modified in India to suit its ethos and needs. Accordingly, secularism as implied in the Indian constitution means, firstly, that there would be no state religion and, secondly, that all religions would get equal treatment and respect. Mutual tolerance is the very basis of this secularism, while the basis of induced or forced conversion is invariably intolerance of the other religions, born out of the feeling of superiority of one’s own religion and denial that all religions, as so many paths to the same destination, deserve equal respect. It means my god is the only true god; yours is the false one and so you give up your god and worship mine!

Thus the attempt to convert is the expression of the worst form of intolerance which hits at the very root of Indian secularism. Intolerance breeds intolerance and conversion leads to re–conversion and even more conversions by all parties. Inter–religious hatred and strife bedevil national amity and unity. Thus, conversion is the very antithesis of secularism and should have no place in India.

Adoption of a new faith is one thing, converting someone to it is quite another. Even the adoption, to be genuine and valid, must be strictly based on an adequate understanding of the philosophy and practice of the other faith and on no other considerations. In fact, there should be religious courts to annul conversions which are not based strictly on these premises, in order to end conversion controversies forever. Conversions, to say the least, are un–religious acts. And when force, deceit or allurement is used for conversion, it unmistakably becomes an anti–religious act.

Regarding practitioners of deceit, the Bible says, “You outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” and asks, “How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Mathew 23:28,33). Similarly, the Quran declares that there can be no compulsion in matters of religion, condemns hypocrites and pronounces, “Woe to those that deal in fraud” (Sura 63:1 and 83:1). Perfect matching of means with ends is nowhere so very imperative as in the realm of religion. Their mismatch is the very definition of an anti–religious act. Surely, missionaries constitute a bunch of misguided zealots who, as per aforesaid prescriptions of their own religions, are not going to get any spiritual gain from induced or forced conversions.

Dr. Manmohan Singh has recently stated that the twenty–first century would be Mahatma Gandhi’s century. It would, therefore, be pertinent to note what Mahatma Gandhi had to say about conversions. “I hold,” wrote Gandhiji, “that proselytising under the cloak of humanitarian work is, to the least, unhealthy..... Conversions have now–a–days become a matter of business like any other.” Further he asks, “How can the conversion achieved through such unethical means be called religious in the true sense?” (Politics of Conversion, editor Devendra Swarup; Pp.337–8). Charity is no charity if it desires something in return; it is just a tacit bargain, an irreligious act.
Development of knowledge, both scientific and spiritual, has made it amply clear that some of the religious concepts and practices held dear in the past are no longer valid in modern times. They are, therefore, either being dropped or reinterpreted. The Church, for example, has dropped the concept of the flatness of the earth and exonerated Galileo (or itself?). It also recently accepted the validity of all religions as “different paths to the truth”, though rather reluctantly and not in full measure. Practice of idolatry, though condemned by Christianity and Islam, is today prevalent in the followers of both the religions in some form or the other, such as idols of Mary and Jesus, Kaaba, dargahs etc. Music, paintings of living beings etc. are now prevalent among Muslims too. Above all, by its relentless pursuit of knowledge in all spheres, the Christian world has practically given up the concept of original sin and replaced it, so to say, by the Hindu concept of original boon — Dnyanadev tu kaivalyam: Bliss through knowledge. It is also gradually dawning on people of different religions that all religions are different paths leading to the same destination and, therefore, they should practice tolerance and mutual respect.

It is true that there are some prescriptions in Christianity and Islam in pursuance of which conversion activities are resorted to. But there are some other prescriptions also which indicate the validity of all religions and the need to practice tolerance and mutual respect. Jesus Christ, for example, had said that he had come “to fulfil and not destroy” and that, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” (Politics of Conversion, p.126; quoted by V.V. John.). According to Islam, too, Allah himself sent different prophets to different lands and gave them different books. Further, Prophet Muhammad unequivocally announced to all non–Muslims: “I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine.” (Sura 109:1–6). Where then is the need or tenability of conversion?

Modern times demand that the aforesaid liberal principles prevail over the other illiberal and fundamentalist principles of Christianity and Islam that allegedly favour conversion; allegedly because reinterpretation of most of the latter will make them compatible with the former. Jihad, for example, is now interpreted by many enlightened Muslim scholars to mean war against the enemy within, such as greed, selfishness etc, and not against the enemy without. Conversion, likewise, can mean self–transformation into a better person. In any case, the concepts of Jihad, crusade, conversion, religious exclusiveness, fundamentalism, orthodoxy and the like are remnants of the past narrow feudal culture, which need to be abandoned or reinterpreted to fit them into the requirements of the modern period of liberalisation and globalisation.

It is the impact of the modern way of liberal and global thinking that has rightfully led to the demand of amends of apologies from the Pope for the atrocities committed in the past in the name of religion such as inquisitions of the 15th century. In India, both Christians and Muslims committed untold atrocities on Hindus in the past and they should, in all fairness, offer apologies and amends and stop all induced and forced conversions. That is the only just and honourable way to put the dismal past behind us and march jointly into the 21st century.

It is the eternal glory of Hinduism that it always believed in and practised religious tolerance and co–existence. Its cardinal principle is: “the Ultimate Reality, i.e., God, is one; only the learned men describe it differently.” (Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti). All religions, therefore, are different paths that lead to the same destination and hence should be treated with equal respect and tolerance. It distinguishes between Dharma and religion (panth). Dharma is universal and consists of ethical codes and modes essential for the sustenance of society (Samaj–Dharana). Religion or panth on the other hand, is the path to salvation. Dharma being universal is sovereign, but religion and state are totally separated from each other. Its secularism means: “Oneness of all Dharma and equal regard for all religions.” (Sarva Dharma Eka–bhav, Sarva Pantha Sama–bhav). The concepts have stood the test of time and are most relevant for and in keeping with the demands of the modern times.

Hindu tolerance is universally praised by non–Hindus but hardly reciprocated by them. They seem to hold: “You should ever practise tolerance because that is your principle; we would never practice it because it is not our principle.” This one–sided practice of tolerance has always put Hindu society at the receiving end; consequently, in the course of its history it lost vast chunks of its territory, population and even independence. It has, therefore, recently learnt the bitter lesson that it should not tolerate intolerance as tolerance of intolerance does not win over the intolerant to the side of tolerance but the latter invariably falls a prey to the predatory moves of the former. This realisation is at the root of the present–day aggressive stance of the Hindus. For this the reported move of the Church to resort to proselytisation in India in a big way to celebrate the year 2000, has provided a strong and immediate provocation. So, in order to re–establish cordiality, Christianity and Islam need to give up their intolerance.

Modern times also demand that all religions give up their exclusiveness, absorb what is good in all religions and function under an umbrella of universal Dharma.

Sonia Gandhi has recently praised Hinduism for its tradition of tolerance, which has sustained secularism in this country. If these words are genuine, her next logical step should be to call upon Christians and others to emulate Hinduism and give up attempts for religious conversion, which reflects the worse type of intolerance.

Religious conversions have another angle, a political one. As pointed out by the Niyogi Committee, they seem to be intended to create a state within a state. Foreign missionaries and foreign funds are suspect from this point of view and so they should either be totally banned or strictly regulated.

Conversions have no place in our march to the 21st century. We are at the cross–roads and have to choose between clash of civilisations, which is an inevitable outcome of mutual intolerance and synthesis of and harmony between civilisations, for which universal spread and practice of the Hindu tradition of tolerance and mutual respect is necessary. 

Prof. S. G. Kashikar
(The author president, Bharteeya Vichar Manch, Nagpur and chairman, Indian Institute of Public Administration, Nagpur branch).
(We are carrying this piece by the author in the interest of debate though we do not agree with its contents. — Editors)

[ Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Khoj | Aman ]
[ Letter to editor  ]
Copyrights © 2001, Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd.