'We must begin dialogue with openness and goodwill, but we will not proceed very far without trust and good faith. The alternative is the violence of 'might is right,' which settles very little and destroys so much of real value,' says Dr Rudolf C Heredia, author of Religious Disarmament -- Rethinking Conversion in India.
Conversion is a complex and emotionally charged issue, more so than ever today. There is a hardening of the divides, an entrenchment on all sides along religious fault lines in India, that still yields electoral returns in our 'religionised' politics.
Fundamentalists of all hues exploit it, liberals confuse it, many do not really comprehend what all the fuss is about, and many more just do not want to get involved but cannot escape it.
In today's surcharged context of minority-bashing and anti-conversion laws, of majoritarian politics and vote-banks, the issues implied get more explosive every day.
Rather than a backlash of fundamentalism and violence, religious reform and renewal within the limits of civic freedom are surely more urgent constructive responses.
As recently as May 12 to 16, 2006 at Lariano in Italy, an inter-religious meeting of representatives from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Yoruba religion, was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Vatican City, and the Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, on 'Conversion: Assessing the Reality.'
Their concluding reflections and recommendations are an apt example of the kind of religious disarmament urged in our discourse here and are important enough to be quoted at length: (Vidyajyoti, Volume 70, No 8 August 2006: pages 625 to 628).
1. All of us believe that religions should be a source of uniting and ennobling of humans. Religion, understood and practiced in the light of the core principles and ideals of each of our faiths, can be a reliable guide to meeting the many challenges before humankind.
2. Freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right of every human being in every country in the world. Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one's own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one's faith to people of one's own and other faiths, and also the freedom to embrace another faith out of one's own free choice.
3. We affirm that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other's rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.
4. Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith.
5. We acknowledge that errors have been perpetrated and injustice committed by the adherents of every faith. Therefore, it is incumbent on every community to conduct honest self-critical examination of its historical conduct as well as its doctrinal/theological precepts. Such self-criticism and repentance should lead to necessary reforms inter alia on the issue of conversion.
6. A particular reform that we would commend to practitioners and establishments of all faiths is to ensure that conversion by 'unethical' means are discouraged and rejected by one and all. There should be transparency in the practice of inviting others to one's faith.
7. While deeply appreciating humanitarian work by faith communities, we feel that it should be conducted without any ulterior motives. In the area of humanitarian service in times of need, what we can do together, we should not do separately.
8. No faith organization should take advantage of vulnerable sections of society, such as children and the disabled.
9. During our dialogue, we recognised the need to be sensitive to the religious language and theological concepts in different faiths. Members of each faith should listen to how people of other faiths perceive them. This is necessary to remove and avoid misunderstandings, and to promote better appreciation of each other's faiths.
10. We see the need for and usefulness of a continuing exercise to collectively evolve a 'code of conduct' on conversion, which all faiths should follow. We therefore feel that inter-religious dialogues on the issue of conversion should continue at various levels.
The Hindutva ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was a participant at the Larano conference, wrote about this in his column in the Indian Express (October 12, 2008), endorsing these recommendations.
Some years later, on June 12, 2009, there was another meeting in Mumbai at Archbishop's House, with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Prefect of the Congregation for Interreligous Dialogue to which Kulkarni had been invited.
These conversations were being held in the wake of the Kandamahal communal violence that rumbled through 2007-2008, fuelled by the politics of hate and an ideology of religious violence deliberately manipulated to keep communal tensions constantly on the boil.
In his column (Indian Express, June 14, 2009), Kulkarni nostalgically recalled the Lariano meeting while discussing the Mumbai one. Among those present at this Hindu-Christian dialogue were representative leaders of all our major religious traditions. Kulkarni ruefully concludes that:
'The road of reconciliation and durable harmony and peace is a hard one. Several important questions need greater debate leading to convergent positions. In the months ahead, both Hindu and Christian leaders also have a duty to crystallise mutual trust and understanding into a practical and collaborative agenda of action at all levels, including the grassroots level, to remove the sources of prejudices, tension and conflict. How to move ahead?'
An effective and sensible approach to defuse communal tensions is to find ways of transforming and liberalising religio-cultural traditions from within, rather than subjecting them to the threat of destruction or humiliation by denigration from without. This only provokes defensiveness and resistance, sometimes even escalating violence.
To try to freeze the status quo is to trap people in the very situations from which they seek to escape in order to affirm the identity and dignity that have too long been denied them.
Whether this be motivated by religious conviction and spiritual enlightenment, or by social equality and political freedom, or whatever else, their choice to convert is still well within their rights.
It must not be negated by those who might be offended by this nor manipulated by those who would take advantage of them.
We must indeed begin this dialogue with openness and goodwill, but we will not proceed very far without trust and good faith. The alternative is the violence of 'might is right,' which settles very little and destroys so much of real value.
Dr Rudolf C. Heredia is the author of Religious Disarmament -- Rethinking Conversion in India (Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi. 2014) and Taking Sides: Reservation Quotas and Minority Rights in India, Penguin, 2012.)
Image: A view of the St Sebastian’s Church in Delhi, which was destroyed by a mysterious fire in early December. Photograph: PTI Photo