Rediff Navigator News


Capital Buzz

The Rediff Interview


The Rediff Poll


Crystal Ball

Click Here

The Rediff Special



Commentary/ Amberish K Diwanji

Conversion and the State

A Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Maharashtra assembly has declared that he will soon introduce a bill to ban conversions by 'forceful' means. His bill is opposed by many, inside and outside the House, especially the latter. Forefront in opposing the bill are the Christian churches, with India still being a favoured destination for those out to convert the pagans and heathens.

Given the communal and sensitive times we live in, this will no doubt be an issue that could ignite passions and worse. Perhaps one reason why few Muslim organisations have not openly opposed the bill draft could be memories of the recent Hindu-Muslims riots in India. The malicious and unfounded propaganda disseminated by various Hindu extremist organisations against Muslims of different hues has made the latter rather quiet.

Pleas to ban conversions have been doing the rounds ever since the country's Independence. Many Hindus see conversions as a tool to increase the numbers of Muslims and Christians at the cost of Hindus, and in our communal times and democratic society, numbers translate into voting power. Very important for those aspiring to the Delhi throne on a support of votes purely on religious grounds.

But it is worth asking whether religious battles can be won in the political arena. It is significant that Hindus seek a legislative bill to counter a perceived religious threat; why can't they counter the same on religious grounds? If anything, history has clearly shown that political power can rarely counter religious movements. Two instances. Ancient Roman emperors did everything in their power to halt the spread of Christianity, including feeding Christians to lions; in vain. Today, the western world is synonymous with Christianity.

Second, many Hindus love to believe that all Muslims in India were forcibly converted on the threat of death by the various invaders from Central Asia. Yet, if that had been so, given the fact that the Mughal empire flourished for over 200 years, surely a much larger percentage of Indian would have become Muslims, if not all of north India. The truth is that political power could not sway religious sentiments.

So whom is the bill seeking to protect? The so-called poor tribals inhabiting the vast hinterland and central regions of India, also the most neglected regions of the country. Are they Hindus? Tricky question. Legally, Hinduism is not defined.

Anyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Jew, or a Parsi, is a Hindu. This broad spectrum includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, animists, Hindus of various sects and subsects, and all other believers. This includes the many tribal people in India, with their own beliefs and rituals that, incidentally, have little to do with Sanskritised Hinduism.

Yet, elite Hindus consider all such persons as Hindus, even if the latter do not. In sheer numbers, this gives Hinduism a potential population of 700 million. But quantity is a poor measure of quality. How Hindu are the tribals, whom Hindu brahmins, upper castes, and elites seek to protect and prevent from converting.

In seeking to legislate a ban on conversion, the question is why do tribal people convert. Some Hindus say it is because they are bribed, that is, offered incentives to convert, and which is what they want to stop. One may note here that even Mother Teresa has had this charge hurled at her. The truth is more complex. In tribal areas, for miles and miles of jungle and woods, often the only sign of civilisation is the missionary church, offering medical care and education.

The only educated people around in an area which seems miles away from civilisation are the missionaries. And the missionaries are not only there to convert. Most of their work is helping the poor tribal stand on his own feet against the oppressive moneylender, or the landlord. The missionaries make the tribal and poor people literate, and thus help them find employment outside. The missionary is very much part of the tribal society.

At this stage if the tribal chooses to call himself Christian, who is to blame? Because Christianity gives him an identity beyond being just a tribal, a sense of belonging that Hinduism simply does not. It must be noted here that the very people who are out to oppress the poor tribal are invariably Hindus: the moneylender, the landlord, the indifferent government official, the corrupt contractor.

Moreover, government agencies are nowhere in sight, and Hindu missions conspicuous by their absence. It is not just a question of money, but of attitude. The pernicious caste system has made serving the most downtrodden something to be read and spoken about, never actually done. If offering service gets converts, perhaps there is a message in it for Hindus troubled by conversion. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is more busy breaking mosques and fighting political battles rather than worry about the plight of tribals.

Converting to Islam is much in the same league. In 1981, many poor Dalits in Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu converted to Islam, causing a hue and cry. Apparently the Vishwa Hindu Parishad 'converted' them back to Hinduism! But this does not resolve the original sins: casteism and neglect.

If one converts because doing so accords him respect and gives him a sense of identity and belonging, where is there the question of forcible conversion. If one chooses to follow the faith of those who have helped and are helping him the most, as opposed to those who torment him, can he be faulted?

Religious battles cannot be fought by political means. If there are Hindus who are worried by conversions, they should try and redeem Hinduism, go out and serve the tribals and Dalits and the poor. Make the lowest believe that Hinduism too provides balm for the soul, for a poor has little else to ask for.

Politically outcast, economically poor, uneducated, socially ignored, the poor have only their faith. And if their faith cannot give them spiritual solace but becomes a tool for the oppressor, then why should they stay part of that faith?

Amberish K Diwanji

Home | News | Business | Sport | Movies | Chat
Travel | Planet X | Kidz | Freedom | Computers

Copyright 1996 Rediff On The Net
*All rights reserved