As Orissa continues to burn and Karnataka to simmer, we are confronted once again with that old bogey of conversion. The allegation is that at least part of the blame for the violence against Christians must be laid at the door of the aggressive policy of conversion of some evangelical groups. Besides the obvious fact that no amount of provocation can justify taking the law into one's own hands, this argument is particularly strange in a country that counts the right to preach, practise and propagate one's religion among its fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Should a civilised, tolerant society get into so personal a matter as the religious conviction of its citizens? After all, what is so perverse about conversion? If you exercise your fundamental right to preach and propagate your religion and someone, convinced by your arguments, comes over to your side how can anyone object? We are told that such changes cause unrest in society. But in public life we do not allow the unrest argument to prevent individuals from changing their loyalties or ideologies.
The only legitimate ground on which conversion can be opposed is if it can be shown to have resulted from the use of force or fraud. Several states, including Orissa, have enacted legislation to prevent conversions by force or fraud or even inducement. In respect to the latter, they are on shaky ground. When you go to a shop and, under the terms of some promotion, you are told that you can buy one and get one free, is this not inducement? If this is allowed as a legitimate tool in commerce, it cannot be illegitimate elsewhere. But the use of force or fraud is anyway outlawed by the Indian Penal Code and action against such acts is not dependent on specific anti-conversion laws.
Indeed, this is at the centre of the whole conversion argument. Whenever the topic comes up, apologists are at pains to point out that census data clearly show that the Christian population in percentage terms has actually fallen from a high of 2.6 per cent in 1971 to 2.3 per cent in 2001. This fact, while correct, is irrelevant. Even if the Christian population had increased substantially as a result of conversion, there would have been nothing wrong with this as long as the conversions were the result of a change of heart and not the use of force or fraud.
This is where a further problem arises. While there is no question about the need to avoid conversion by force or fraud, the difficulty lies in adjudicating on this subject. So far most states, which have enacted anti-conversion legislation, have left it to the district magistrate (DM) to decide whether conversion is genuine or due to force and fraud.
Aside from the fact that most civilised societies would hesitate to give sweeping \powers in such a sensitive matter to the state, the question is how does a DM decide on the genuineness of conversion? It is extra-ordinarily difficult to look into a person's soul and decide whether it is God or Mammon that has dictated a particular course of action. At best the DM could rely on what people in the vicinity say. But that is an inadequate basis for such an important finding.
The problem with anti-conversion legislation does not end here. Most Acts give the power to conduct enquiries into proposed conversions to the police. But in Himachal Pradesh, a state where Christians constitute barely 0.2 per cent of the population and where it would appear that such an Act was quite unnecessary, not only has anti-conversion legislation been put on the statute book but the Act lays down that the DM can authorise anybody to make such an enquiry.
This is amazing because it gives the DM authority to pick and choose the person or body, who will make the enquiry. What is there to prevent an officer from handing over the enquiry to a fundamentalist organisation with an anti-conversion agenda?
So we come back once again to the question: Which conversion is through force and fraud and which through conviction? Let there be no mistake. The person who converts through fraudulent means is our common enemy. But until we are able to establish the difference between the two through objective and easily identifiable criteria we will invariably end up penalising those who have a genuine change of heart or worse still use it as an excuse to terrorise a whole group of people. It is the absence of these criteria that have made existing legislation on the subject so ineffective. The anti-conversion Bill in Orissa was passed in 1967 but rules under the Act were framed only in 1999. So far no one has been convicted under the Act and no case has ever been filed under its provisions.
But in one matter, at least, it is not difficult to nail forced conversions. The sinister campaign threatening Christians with the forfeiture of their property and the destruction of their homes if they do not renounce Christianity and become Hindus is the most chilling example of this. If we are serious about outlawing forced conversion we must use the clear provisions of a Bill passed more than 30 years ago to deal with precisely this evil.
The writer is vice-chairman, National Commission for Minorities.
A rejoinder (11 Oct. 2008) by Dr. Mrs. Hilda Raja to the article "Don't target converts" by Michael Pinto in the 'Times of India' dated 8 October 2008.
'Don't target Converts 'by Michael Pinto (TOI 8th OCT) poses many questions than it answers. No amount of provocation can justify violence is easily said but humanly not easy to follow. All are not Gandhians or Jesus to show the left cheek when slapped on the right. Some countries follow a justice system which is based on 'eye for an eye'. Aggressive policy of conversion followed by some fundamentalist churches and fundamental Christians cannot justify taking law into one's hand and no amount of provocation can justify violence is correct theoretically and logically. But if such logic rules the hearts and minds of men/women why is there so much of violence in the world? Why do countries violate the rights of other countries? Why do law makers turn into law breakers? Why do those in the Khaki who have to operate the law on the streets become violators of human rights? In the midst of such oppression, exploitation can we expect the people to meekly be submissive and subservient? Or is the author's theory held good only in the provocation rising in the business of conversion?
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated why thousands of Sikhs were butchered in the capital? Was it not justified by the Congress party? When the Brahmin pundits were killed and chased away from their homes in the Valley and forced to become refugees in their own country under ethnic cleansing no voices were raised against such an abuse and violation? When a holy man held in great reverence was brutally murdered with his three disciples in his own ashram will the author's theory be strong enough to hold back the emotional, social, and religious upheaval of the hurt psyche?
'Terrorists do not belong to any one community knows no religion', pontificates our political leaders. Is this again reserved only when it comes to the terrorists of the Minority community? It must be said that violence is nurtured within religious ghettos, madrassas, and only religions/beliefs are strong enough to provoke and sanctify spilling of the blood of the innocents. It is in the name of religion that the world had witnessed violence, genocide, torture and oppression and a Talibanism justifying the imposition of religious domination and curtailment of the rights of humans.
It is a utopia that Michael Pinto is envisaging when he states that no amount of provocation can justify violence. This is armchair wistful thinking. When the Christians were oppressors this theory vanished. The tables are turned and when there is an assertion of the Hindus to retain their culture, their religion and their heritage then the drum beating of the Constitutional guarantees is heard. It is the right of the Hindus to protect the Hindu ethos of this country which they feel is threatened. Was Art 30 not enacted to ensure the Right of the Minorities to establish manage and administer institutions to safeguard their ethos?
It is shocking that politicians are equating the Bajrang Dal and the VHP with the SIMI. The latter is a terror outfit with its branches now functioning in new names. The suspects belonging to these outfits are involved in serial blasts all over the country, they are trained in Pakistan and in POK .These are anti national outfits. What is the purpose/aim of these serial blasts-killing of innocent people who are about their daily business? The aim is to destabilize the country, create panic and insecurity and unrest within the country. Why was Parliament targeted? And who were behind it? But the same cannot be said of Bajrang Dal and the VHP. They are nationalists-they may be attacking a particular community for reasons of their own- the root cause being forced conversion and a reaction to the denigration of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Those involved in such violence and criminal activities must be apprehended and brought to justice. But where is the justification to demand a ban on such outfits? This is indulging in vote bank politics. Till date not a single terrorist has been brought to justice. The reality of wars, underworld dons killing, custodial deaths, political bosses unleashing terror against their opponents are all part of the harsh reality of today's world.
Conversion from time immemorial has a concomitant-violence. Indian history is replete with it. The oppression, force, torture, massacre of the Indians to convert them to Islam, and Christianity is not a fable. The Inquisition and all that it wrought is world record. Again it is in the name of religion. What you sow you reap. Violence begets violence-this is nature's order. In 'don't target converts' the author finds it strange that converts are targeted in a country which constitutionally upholds the right to preach and propagate one's religion. But then to preach and propagate one's religion does not mean to force and use fraudulent means to pressurize people to change from one religion to another. I am shocked that in this context the author compares inducements like 'buy one and get one free' in the market of commodities, to faith changing. If the market goods can be sold with inducements why not it be extended to faith and belief changing is the author's argument. Can faith and belief be brought to the market level of sales of commodities? By this analogy the author accepts that there is inducement. Money is flowing from foreign based churches and the gods of these churches need recruits-the greater the strength the greater the power of these gods and hence the brokers of these gods are all out targeting the poor. The inducement-a plate of rice, a loaf of bread to the hunger, shelter for the homeless, and also the promise of the green pastures in the next world-The strategy has first an entry point-first denigrate, abuse, degrade and demolished their gods and icons. Second instill in these victims the doubt that their gods are false and then promise to lead them to the true god. A vulnerable victim, with a vacuum inner self is then ready for the initiation into a "New Life"/to be "Born Again". The false propaganda is vicious because of its attack on another religion. This kind of provocation is not easy to overlook because human nature is to refute and repel this atrocious slander/blasphemy.
What will the author say if one prints pamphlets that the mother of Jesus was a prostitute and Jesus' birth was not a virgin birth? That after her marriage Joseph found her pregnant and toyed with the idea of putting her away. Only the intervention of an angel restrained him from taking such a drastic action. This is what the bible narrates. Will the Catholic Church and other fund churches sit back and humbly submit to such provocation? When posters depicting Jayalalitha as a Virgin Mary appeared in Chennai there were massive rallies and protests. But if Madhuri Dixit is depicted as Durga and the goddess is painted nude it comes under the freedom of expression of a painter. Only difference is that the same painter will not dare to let his artistic acumen and constitutional right to freedom of expression to depict Allah even in the best form. This is how we perceive the operation of guarantees/Rights enshrined in our Constitution
If opting for a "New Life"/ "Born Again", demands discarding of one's culture, social practices, adapting a western life style and adapting western forms of worship then the convert becomes an alien to the Indian/Hindu 'ethos', and is sucked into a process of alienation. This has other ramifications. Why did East Timor break away from Indonesia when its Christian population swelled to 27percent just in a matter of ten years? Similarly in our own context the partition of India was based on the theory that two religions-Islam and Hinduism cannot co-exist as a nation-that was the contention of then Muslims leaders. World history and Indian history is replete with the experience that 'peace cannot co-exist with conversion. The reason being conversion has an inbuilt violence: physical, psychological, social and cultural. It may even abet one to be anti-national.
At times church laws and rules are in variance with national rules and laws. The Christians and the Muslims have their own Personal laws. Whom will the Christians take orders from-their respective church leaders or the government of India when it comes to a national decision? When loyalties of a person are divided and clash then the likelihood of becoming a victim to schizophrenia. A leader from Kashmir proclaimed on the floor of the Parliament that he is a Muslim and an Indian. No Muslim/Christian will state, 'I am first an Indian and then a Muslim/Christian'. One can change one's religion but not one's nationality into which one is born. Politicians too have abetted this by not addressing citizens but focusing on communal/caste/religious divide.
Another aspect to be noted in the business of conversion is that conversions are made even in proxy. A few years ago in Trichy district of Tamilnadu a whole list of names were produced in paper and the bishop of that evangelical church baptized them in absentia! Would this qualify as conversion? I belong to the Catholic Church and my understanding of conversion is that it is a process-a life long search for truth. Conversion is a private affair and not a street tamasha-neither is it an activity intended to swell numbers. It is not that conversion is from one religion to another the Fundamentalist churches poach on the grounds of other Christian sects. So the Jesus of one church is different from the Jesus of another. This creates also distrust and disharmony among the Christian community. Freedom is always accompanied by restrictions. Freedom is restricted when it encroaches the freedom of others and of a whole society. Rights are not hierarchically.
When conversions are a threat to peace then it needs to be banned. Like the curfew order-the ban to strike etc. The million dollar question is why conversion? Is it a prerequisite for development work? Why are the foreign agencies funding conversion activities? It is strange that the fundamental Christians and the churches to which they belong do not turn their attention and energy in this salvation ensuring business to the Muslims. Development and upliftment of the poor is the camouflage of evangelization all the more why the need for the churches to work with the Muslims. Because according to Sachar report the Muslims are the lowest in India-both economically and educationally. Is it not strange that not a single Muslim has been converted? According to Michael Pinto the Christian population has fallen from 2.6 percent in 1971 to 2.3 percent in 2001.This does not mean that lakhs are not converted by the hundreds of fundamental churches that have mushroomed in the country. Today we are one billion so what does the 2.3 indicate in absolute numbers? When one reviews numbers a few other indicators must also be listed-Christians follow Family planning, the celibacy of nuns and priests, and the fact that most of the converts for the sake of reservation and other benefits retain the religion and the caste in which they were born on records.
Conversion has been commercialized by the Fundamentalistic churches. The number of converts is co-related to the quantum of funds that flow in. This must not be overlooked. Why not ban foreign funds and watch how evangelization evaporates? All laws have their accompanying lacunae/loopholes and difficulties in implementation, do we on such grounds fight shy of enacting laws? Conversions must be banned to ensure peace and harmony. Let us give peace a chance-for peace and conversion cannot co-exist.
Dr Mrs Hilda Raja, (Former member of the National Advisory committee of the CBCI)
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