The sordid politics of religious conversions
The outrage in and outside Parliament over reports of ‘forced’ conversion of Muslims to Hinduism in Agra (Sangh Parivar activists called it “home-coming”, as they claimed the converted had only returned to their original faith) would not have happened if the country had had an anti-conversion law which dealt with religious conversions done through fraud, coercion or inducement. Barring a handful, – and this number is insignificant, – conversions have been necessarily accompanied by either the threat of force or shining promises which eventually were or were not met. An anti-conversion law would have separated genuine conversions from the dubious ones. Interestingly, the current furore is directed at the ‘inducements’ such as BPL cards and the like that the Sangh activists supposedly lured the potential converts with. It is precisely these kinds of tactics that an anti-conversion legislation would have effectively tackled.
One would have thought that ‘secularists’ who have been in the forefront against the use of allurement and threat would welcome an anti-conversion Act that bans these methods. But they are the ones most opposed to it, on the ground that such a law would go against the ‘right’ of persons to choose and practise their faith. They either fail to appreciate or do not want to acknowledge that a legislation of this sort would not criminalise conversions per se; it would only hold as illegal, conversions that take place in a fraudulent manner. By howling against conversions by one group but justifying them by another, and not questioning equally the methods of both, they have exposed themselves to be what they are: Pseudo-secularists. In the process, they, many of them being self-confessed Gandhians, forgot what the Mahatma had said about proselytisation (religious conversion by another name): “It is the deadliest poison which ever sapped the fountain of truth”. Also, safely assuming that these ‘secularists’ have deep regard for the Dalai Lama too, they have overlooked what the Buddhist spiritual leader had to say on the subject: “I do not like conversions because they have a negative impact. The two parties, that of the converted and the community abandoned by him, begin to fight.”
But we are not even discussing religious conversions in general terms; let us grant, against the wishes of the Mahatma and the Dalai Lama, that such conversions should be allowed because the freedom to convert reflects on the Indian citizens’ Fundamental Rights. What must be discussed, debated and deliberated upon is whether such freedom must be unfettered or subjected to a test that renders it bona fide. It is here that we must turn to the pages of recent history.
In 1955, a Bill came up before Parliament with provisions to strictly regulate (though not ban) conversions. The background to that Bill was the increasing complaints that were made to lawmakers and people’s representatives from activists and marginalised citizens, especially from socially and economically backward areas of the country, that they were the targets of proselytisation attempts by Christian missionaries working in those regions. Just a year ago, the Madhya Pradesh Government had set up an MB Niyogi-led Panel, The Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee, to probe complaints of large-scale conversions of “illiterate aboriginals and other backward people” by Christian missionaries, “either forcibly or through fraud or temptations of monetary gains”. The Bill was a golden opportunity for the Government of Jawaharlal Nehru to nip the problem in the bud. Had it done so, the country would not have witnessed the sporadic incidents of conversion-related tension and violence over the decades. But Nehru was, after all, a secularist and a brown sahib under his Gandhi cap. There was no way he could offend the missionaries and ruin his image in the West. He, therefore, declared, “I fear that this Bill will not help very much in suppressing evil methods… We should deal with those evils on a different plane, in other ways…” What those ‘other ways’ and ‘different plane’ were to be, he never explained. It was also never his intention to implement them, since he had achieved the purpose of sabotaging the Bill.
Yet another Bill was introduced in Parliament in 1960 to protect the vulnerable Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes “from change of religion forced on them on grounds other than religious convictions”. Felix Alfred Plattner, author of The Catholic Church in India: Yesterday and Today (1964) and Jesuits Go East, noted that this Bill met with a fate similar to the one of five years ago, because of Nehru’s steadfast refusal to recognise the missionaries’ negative propaganda. He wrote, “Nehru had remained true to his British upbringing.” He added that after Nehru’s backing, the Church faced its next formidable task: That of the conversion of the masses of India.
Church leaders today dismiss the anti-campaign as Rightist propaganda, saying that even if a part of that were to be true, there would have been many more Christians in the country. They forget to take into account the failures they faced in converting as many as they would have liked through force or inducement or imaginary threats of hell fire, largely due to the resilience of the masses and pressure from the social system – regardless of Nehru’s munificence. Nehru had even gone to the extent of declaring that Christianity in India was “2000 years old” – something that was not even established – and certified the conduct of the missionaries as excellent. With such blanket support, regardless of the worrisome findings of the Niyogi panel report, which was submitted to the Madhya Pradesh Government in April 1956, the missionaries got away with the past and plunged enthusiastically into the future to reap the harvest.
Given this background, it was amazing to hear from a prominent Christian cleric on a television news channel recently that the Church or Christian missionaries had never indulged in conversions in the country through inducements or force or by threats. The anchor, who was visibly agitated over the Agra re-conversion incident and kept sternly pulling up a panelist who had the misfortune to represent a Right-wing organisation, neither batted an eyelid nor did he confront the good Father, who had spoken untruth with a poker-face, with the findings of the Niyogi Panel report.