BJP and Congress governments play politics with conversion bogey
By John Dayal
India’s microscopic Christian community and its clergy may become “collateral damage” of an unspoken but very palpable competitive wooing of the majority Hindu community, specially in central India, in the run up to the General Elections in 2014, and elections to State legislative assemblies even earlier.
Three significant recent developments show the political trend. The State of Madhya Pradesh, which was among the first [with Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh] to seek a curb on conversions to Christianity through its ironically named Freedom of Religion Act in 1968, is now adding some more draconian provisions to the notorious law. Neighbouring Maharashtra is understood to be planning a similar law to criminalize conversions. And up in the Himalayan north, the Himachal Pradesh government is planning to seek the Supreme court’s help to reverse a High court judgment which had struck down some of the more vicious components of the state’s anti conversion law, including one which required government’s permission before change of faith.
Madhya Pradesh is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata party, now gone entirely overboard with the Hindutva agenda of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh whose chosen Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has made it clear where his priorities lie. His lieutenants have called for a building of a Temple to Lord Rama on the ruins of the Babri mosque the RSS groups demolished in 1992. Modi himself has lost no opportunity to stress his support to the Hindu heartland.
But it is the Congress that governs Himachal Pradesh. The current chief minister had enacted this law, and he now wants all its “teeth” restored by the Supreme Court. Maharashtra is also ruled by the Congress in a coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party of Union Agriculture minister Mr. Sharad Pawar, who too professes a vey “secular” ideology to woo the large Muslim population of his home State.
The mainstay of the Congress political platform has been its traditional non-partisan ideology – and its affirmative action for the poor, the marginalised, the religious minorities, Tribals and Dalits. But it has been an open secret from the days of Mahatma Gandhi and the illustrious leadership of the Freedom Struggle, that Congress also harbours majoritarian elements who surface every time the party has to seek votes in the face of a direct challenges by the BJP and other Hindutva groups such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
The Maharashtra government has been secretive on its reason for contemplating a law to curb conversions. It has no data to show the number of conversions done through fraud or coercion – the two reasons given as grounds for vitiating a change of faith by a citizen even in the states of Arunachal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal which do have these laws on the statute books.
What complicates the politics of such moves against conversions -- and the phrase is generally understood to mean conversion to Christianity, and not to Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism -- is the focus on Christian preachers and evangelists. Islam has since Independence not really been involved in proselytizing with its numbers growing only through birth. There have been many instances of Hindus converting to Sikhism, a practice that was common before the Army assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984 at the height of the separatist Khalistani militancy, but still takes place in the Punjab and New Delhi. Conversions to Buddhism take place on a mass scale from the ranks of the Dalits, who are then called Ambedkarites or Neo-Buddhists. Five hundred thousand of them were converted to Buddhism in Nagpur by the late Dr. B R Ambedkar, the chair of the committee that wrote India’s Constitution. A recent celebrated mass conversion took place in recent years in Mumbai where 50,000 Dalits changed faith at a popular public grounds in the heart of the city under police protection.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus) and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (Jungle Dwellers Welfare Association), frontal organisations of the RSS working in the tribal areas, routinely convert animistic and Christian tribals to Hinduism under what they call a Ghar Wapsi programme, “home-coming” to their faith. There has been no legal action ever against the VHP, or the RSS.
So far the Himachal law was the most draconian as it forced citizens and their pastors to give a month’s notice to the state authorities and then await their decision before they could formally profess the faith. The Evangelical Fellowship of Indian, and a secular NGO, ANHAD led by celebrated civil rights activist Shabnam Hashmi, moved the high court which struck down these obnoxious clauses.
It is these very sections that Madhya Pradesh now wants to incorporate into its old law. It in fact goes a step further and wants the police to launch mandatory enquires into why the person wants to change his faith – in effect why he wants to leave Hindu fold. Pastors can be jailed for four years and fined a hundred thousand rupees if they break the law.
In states where the police force and the subordinate bureaucracy is known to be bigoted sand partisan, such laws can become extremely punitive. Human Rights activists have often pointed out that such laws also encourage the persecution and victimization of the Christian community, especially of the clergy.
The Church does not seem to have anticipated this. It also has no thesis for a united pre-emptive challenge to such laws. Individual groups go to court, but it is not an easy process. Some sections of the church, in fact, are quick to blame Pentecostal groups as inviting such laws by their provocative evangelisation. Others seem ready to sue for peace, and are already making overtures to the BJP as was seen in the YMCA feting Mr. Narendra Modi at a function in Ahmedabad last month.
The last time the Church voiced its anger was when the then Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, called for a “national debate on conversions”, and the Catholic Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Alan de Lastic, challenged him, pointing out that such talk encouraged violence against hapless Christians in the country. It remains to be seen how the church will respond now.