The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Double-speak, dubious intentions

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 2, 1999

One can only applaud the courtesy and forbearance of the priests and trustees of Tirupati Tirumalai Devasthanam in the face Congress president Sonia Gandhi's arrogant refusal to sign the register affirming belief in the Hindu faith. Such catholicism is the essence of the Sanatan Dharma (the eternal way of life) that our ancestors have espoused through centuries of vicissitudes and grave provocation.

There is little doubt that, like all Ms Sonia Gandhi's actions, this too was planned and scripted in advance, though servile Congressmen would have us believe that she was 'guided' by their "advice'. Those acquainted with Congress culture are familiar with the system whereby the supreme leaders' wishes are divulged to the select, strategically tomtommed as public/party opinion, and transported back to the expectant leader with the precision of a homing pigeon. A cursory look at the sequence of events would bear this out.

Despite extensive dialogue with Tirupati trustees, including the final meeting in which it was reiterated that Ms Sonia Gandhi would have to sign the statement mandatory for non-Hindus, Congressmen were careful not to hint at any reservations on this score. They sought no waiver of the declaration, which non- Hindus like Dr Farooq Abdullah have signed without fuss, and gave the impression that Ms Gandhi would comply. It must, therefore, have come as a rude shock to the priests that the VIP guest preferred to gatecrash into the sanctum sanctorum, even though they were there to welcome her. To their credit, they maintained their composure and conducted the ceremonies with aplomb.

Ms Sonia Gandhi may believe that her haughtiness carried the day, and that she scored a victory by invoking the Hindu heritage of the "Nehru family'. The truth is that she has sullied the maryada (honour) of the temple, and shown contempt for Hindu sentiments and beliefs. Her stubborn refusal to make even a token gesture of respect to the faith she and her party have put under siege, makes her claims to a "naturalised Hindu status' highly suspect. It is nobody's case that Ms Sonia Gandhi should have converted at marriage-either to Feroze Gandhi's Parsi faith or Indira Gandhi's Hindu creed. But in today's surcharged politico-communal climate, she cannot expect us to develop amnesia about her religious identity while she masterminds an aggressive strategy of putting the Hindu community on the defensive, taking advantage of its famed tolerance to attack its very foundations.

Ms Sonia Gandhi's refusal to admit her religion is pure political expediency. Her attempt to hijack the symbols of her rejected marital religion (Hinduism) must be seen as part of the dangerous double-speak in which Congressmen have no equal. In fact, she has been so successful in her misuse of the diversity of the Hindu tradition to create space for an effective political confrontation, that it is no surprise that she and her fellow travellers decided to up the ante so soon.

The political content of the current unrest is now quite apparent. Groups and classes unreconciled to BJP rule converged and attacked the Government at short notice, even as the latter struggled to comprehend the origins of the trouble. The unprepared Government was forced to react to situations created by persons with a specific agenda-its removal from office-while its allies were in disarray, as they were unsure who was morally right. Once again, Defence Minister George Fernandes carried the day, though it is also to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's credit that he kept his nerve through these harrowing days and stood up to bullies disguising their political agenda as a minority/human rights issue.

A pattern is now visible. Four nuns are raped in Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh and vociferous attempts made to implicate the Vishwa Hindu Parishad; by the time this is exposed Congress wins the State elections. Suspicious low-intensity violence breaks out in BJP-ruled Gujarat (where Congress failed to make gains in the recent polls), and the hysteria of the Left-secular- intellectual-political establishment reaches epic proportions. Once it is established that missionaries had been provoking tribals by breaking their temples and idols, that they began the disturbances by stoning a Hindu Jagran Manch rally, that Hanuman temples were attacked long after an administrative crackdown, the scene shifts dramatically.

This time the incident is truly grisly-a foreign missionary and his minor sons are burnt alive in their sleep in the dead of night, in Congress-ruled Orissa. The adjoining thatched roof Christian hamlet is untouched. The killing shocks the nation and attracts international attention on internal affairs in India-one of the main objectives of the anti-BJP crusade. The shouting brigade has its cannon balls ready, but amidst the volley of charges against the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Sangh Parivar, et al, the local administration links the principal accused to a sitting Congress minister!

This is not to accuse the Congress. Yet those who remember the cold-blooded precision with which Sikhs were hunted down, burnt and butchered in the Capital itself for three whole days just in 1984, should pause before pointing an accusing ringer at the BJP and its associates. The status that the principal political accused continue to enjoy in the Congress, including the recent resurrection of the most controversial of them, should be food for thought. At any rate, it indicates the party's cynical attitude towards human life in its search for the elusive political grail.

Does this add up to an international conspiracy to overthrow the BJP? It certainly indicates that a dangerous mischief is afoot. The Pokhran explosions, followed by steps to nuclearise the Armed forces by creating a meaningful Nuclear-deterrent and chain of command, have upset significant sections of the Western world. At the same time, the unmasking of plots to assassinate Home Minister LK Advani indicates nervousness in some fundamentalist groups at having to deal with a firm and focused leadership. Yet, this nationalistic Government is sought to be overthrown by an opportunistic alliance of allegedly insecure minorities.

More significantly, Pope John Paul II has dubbed the coming millennium as the Millennium of Evangelisation. Since much of this evangelisation will target non-Christian lands like India, the question arises: Is there a strategy to create "martyrs" to help promote the cause? Since the Sangh Parivar can be expected to resist the concerted targeting of tribals in this enterprise, what better way to begin than by discrediting the Parivar itself! Those aware of the activities of missionaries in Madhya Pradesh will not dismiss this lightly.

Coming to Graham Stewart Staines' gruesome end, despite vehement denials that he was an evangelist, it now transpires that he was aggressively into conversions, and that this had caused considerable local tension. Referring of his work among the lepers, his associate Subhantar Ghosh avers: "We shad continue preaching that tribals should study God's words to have a deeper knowledge of the Christian faith." (The Pioneer, January 27). In the Hollywood film, The Odessa File, the German (Aryan) hero hunts an ex-Nazi on account of moral outrage against the butchering of Jews. But when he finally tracks him down, it is to find out the truth about his fathers' murder. The Nazi smiles wryly and says, "So you didn't come for the Jews after all." This is how it seems to have been with Graham Staines.

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