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
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.
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
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?