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.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Conversion Agenda

US faith-based initiatives

On a recent trip to India, I was given a copy of Tehelka's February 7th, 2004 issue which has a cover story titled, 'George Bush has a big conversion agenda in India.' (There is a smaller follow-up article in the February 14th issue.) This investigative report developed by Tehelka's undercover team of journalists makes the following points:

1. The US government's faith-based initiatives have funded major Christian groups in the US to pursue religious conversions in India, as a part of Pat Robertson's strategy. These funds are officially channeled for social work only, but are used for dual-purposes, to convert as well as provide social services. (Note, by contrast, that when US government commercial contractors divert government money for personal uses, they land in prison.)

2. A part of this program in India is to develop a database for every PIN code (the equivalent of ZIP codes), and this database is being given to US intelligence agencies. Far more detailed than anything available to Indian authorities, this is a database of immense precision about every tiny locality in the hinterlands of India. It lists local Indian religious and other influential leaders of each jati, their practices and vulnerabilities, and is used to select the appropriate methodologies to wage a conversion micro-war in individual localities. (In the world of commerce, this is called 'database marketing' and such a database would be the envy of any corporate marketing vice president.) Tehelka claims that the database is being used to dispatch faith-based 'services' by decision-makers located in the US, with great precision and speed.

3. These activities are also claimed by Tehelka to be linked to forces that are subversive to India's integrity.

This raises several issues involving the dual nature of these activities, both from the American perspective and from the Indian perspective. From the American perspective, the following issues need to be examined:

1. Do some of these US-funded activities violate the church/State constitutional separation, and, furthermore, do they favor some denominations of religions over others?

2. Do some of these activities violate the goals of US faith-based funding which was meant to be used for the betterment of downtrodden Americans, so as to reduce the burden on government-run programs, and was not intended for use overseas?

In other words, just as money-laundering uses secrecy of off-shore organisations with murky ownership structures to create ambiguity of use, is US public money being sent via a complex web of off-shore groups for purposes that are disallowed for government funding within the United States? All I wish to raise here is the awareness of such a potential issue, and to ask: Why is there no US Congressional or media inquiry into the alleged use of US taxpayer funds for foreign conversions without the knowledge of US taxpayers?

From the Indian side, the issues this provokes are as follows:
  1. Why is this not among the issues on the negotiation table as part of US-India dialogues? These activities, if true, would have adverse consequences for India's integrity.

  2. Are the conflict-of-interest regulations and disclosure requirements for public officials and ex-officials in India adequate?

  3. What mechanisms are being put in place to better monitor foreign-nexus grants and other kinds of problematic influences, and yet do this in ways that minimize the disruption of the transparent groups doing important charitable work?
Furthermore, there are also important US-India mutual interests that were explained in my previous rediff column, about the dangers of such projects turning into foreign misadventures: They potentially undermine India's stability and play into the hands of subversive forces, which could eventually backfire on US interests as has happened in Pakistan and other places many times.

The issue at hand is not about any religion but about the risk that groups with multiple agendas present. It is likely that many persons involved in authorizing these grants are unaware of the details of these dual purposes, and/or of the subsequent consequences of the chain-reactions of events they might be triggering inadvertently. The chain-reactions entail the following sequence of transactions, analogous to many complex money-laundering schemes:
  1. The US government funds some US faith-based charities.

  2. These charities fund non-US subsidiaries or affiliates.

  3. The foreign groups fund conversions and/or local politics which create or aggravate conflicts.

  4. These activities play into the hands of separatists and insurgents.

  5. This destabilises India culturally and politically.

  6. This instability is a time-bomb that could some day strengthen the hand of Taliban-like forces. This would be bad for US geopolitical interests in the long term.

  7. American citizens' security, ethical and moral interests suffer as a result, ironically, using their own money but without their knowledge.
Given this complex chain of cause and effect through multiple stages and intermediaries, it has been easy to overlook the overall schemes, whether intentional or not.

The sound of silence

The lions of Indian activism climbed on rooftops with their megaphones when Tehelka previously exposed allegations of corruption against George Fernandes: They demanded that everyone remotely linked to his work should resign and go to jail. However, given their hush silence over this latest Tehelka report, one wonders whether these Indian lions have turned into Western lapdogs and become the bearers of global evangelism.

Indian activists have orchestrated a massive hue and cry over NRI funding of suspicious Hindutva activities -- such open inquiries are indeed important in bringing transparency. However, the dual-purpose funds being channeled from Western institutions dwarf the alleged size of suspicious Hindutva funds. Foreign organisations pressuring for a politically weak, unstable and fragmented India seem to have bought the complicity of enough five-star activists and intellectuals.

However, some other countries have spoken up against similar schemes -- see Thailand, for example.


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