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.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Conversions subvert cultural plurality

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: Sahara Time
Date: June 12, 2004

"The need of the moment is not one religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of the different religions." - Mahatma Gandhi
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's sudden decision to revoke the State's anti-conversion law has brought the spotlight on the morality, if not legality, of religious conversions. Amidst a general consensus that Ms. Jayalalitha has backtracked due to loss of political nerve, there are growing fears in the Hindu community that missionaries will pursue their conversion agenda with renewed vigour. Unfortunately, the public discourse on this sensitive issue has mostly been ill-informed and one-sided. Thus one often encounters intellectuals who argue that there is nothing special about India's indigenous religious tradition, and that religion, like any other commodity, can be purchased by free choice in the marketplace.

This argument is, of course, both vulgar and simplistic. Conversions are objectionable because they invariably involve loss of identity. This is unavoidable because the religions that proselytize are those that have aggressively destroyed the heritage and roots of the societies whose adherence they won, usually by violence. A cursory glance at the European, African, North and South American and Australian continents will testify to the veracity of this statement.

Those who do not subscribe to the view that in India, it is one's Hindu roots that provide the basis of one's culture and values, would do well to ponder over what one of the most famous Western missionaries, Clifford Manshardt, said about conversions soon after independence. Noting that the outstanding Christians in India were all first generation converts, Manshardt observed that this was because ".they brought over their Hindu culture, and they were at home in their own categories. They had their roots in the cultural past; therefore they were natural. The second generation was taken out, and became neither good Europeans nor good Indians. The second and third generation Christians are neither this nor that. In that period, the Indian Christian had lost his soul. A nationalist said to me, "Your Indian Christian is a man out of gear; he isn't in gear with your people, and he is out of gear with us."

Over five decades after independence, the situation remains much the same, if not worse. In Tamil Nadu's Periamalai area, local residents are increasingly stressed over frenzied religious activity from a group of missionaries. "They don't allow us to live in peace," they complained (News Today 18 May 2004). The missionaries, who have concentrated their expansion activities here, are brazen and aggressive. Not satisfied with the burgeoning number of churches in the area, they have been regularly collecting the faithful at the Periamali hillock and shouting taunts to the Hindu community and deriding Hindu gods, notwithstanding warnings and admonitions from the administration.

What residents find particularly galling is the practice of bringing women to the meetings and asking them to publicly throw their mettis and thalis (symbols of a sumangali, married woman) into the fire as a confirmation of their conversion. This is naturally offensive to the local population, which protested that such activity escalated whenever they went to worship at a Murugan temple nearby.

Till some time ago, the missionaries organized provocative all-night meetings in the vicinity of the temple, but after locals complained to the police, a check-post was put up on the entry road to the hillock to prevent night-time meetings. But soon after, the check-post was damaged by miscreants and night-time evangelism resumed. The residents again protested to the authorities and had another check-post erected. They also managed to get a court order restraining the evangelists from 'encroaching' the land of the Murugan temple. Despite such a strong show of community resentment at conversion activities, the missionaries have simply brushed aside concerns for inter-community harmony and persisted with the action plan for conversions at any cost.

Clearly missionaries do not accept the basic tenet of civilization - that one's rights end where the rights of another begin. On the contrary, under the garb of minority rights, they have been indulging in behaviour that would be regarded as brazen and intolerant in any civilized society. This is because they are unwilling to respect and tolerate India's indigenous civilization and culture, and remain committed to annihilating it.

There are some who argue that 'genuine' religious conversions are permissible, as they rest on an individual's informed choice and are based on a knowledge of the religion in which one is born and the religion to which one is crossing over. This is a valid argument, and such conversion, when it happens, is usually of an individual alone.

The experience, however, is that most conversions are mass conversions, brought about by a mixture of force, fraud, and specifically by inducements in the form of social and economic benefits such as jobs, schools, health facilities, and social dignity. In such cases, the converted are usually poor Dalits or tribals, who know nothing about the new religion except some simple prayers that are taught to them by rote. While there can be little doubt that some economic benefits have percolated to some of them, the social benefits are dubious, as even the church acknowledges that hierarchies of caste continue to operate in the new faith, often with renewed vigour. Social dignity and self-respect, then, became a mirage.

The famous English journalist and writer, Sir Mark Tully, wrote in 1991 that a friend of his "still refers to Harijan converts as 'powder-milk Christians,' and there is no doubt that these people - the poorest of the poor - were attracted by the missionaries' promises to feed their bodies, rather than the prospect of spiritual nourishment.".

Nevertheless, says Tully, the "Harijans also expected Christianity to give them the dignity that they were denied by Hinduism, but here they were to be bitterly disappointed - especially by the Roman Catholic Church." In Hinduism, in contrast, spiritual preceptors like the Kanchi Shankaracharya are actively engaged in eradicating caste inequities.

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