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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Converting truth?

The Pioneer Edit Desk

Six years after the Graham Staines tragedy, proselytisation continues to thrive in Orissa. None of the three sides to the dispute over conversions-government, missionary and Hindu protectionist-seems to have learnt a lesson. The conflagration now witnessed in Dhenkanal district is an outcome of this apathy. It is alleged that a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Jyotirmoyee Bej, is the victim of an advanced conspiracy of cash-rich evangelists, in which local police played willing partner.

Her parents are poor fruit vendors who lack sufficient voice in the right places. Had the Bajrang Dal and VHP not highlighted the fact that Jyotirmoyee's parents had filed an FIR earlier (which the police are said to have destroyed) alleging harassment by the local unit of the Baptist Church, it would have been easier for the authorities to deny any link between her gruesome murder and the larger issue of conversion. Even a fact-finding team sent by the BJP has confirmed this. Since the BJP is part of Orissa's ruling alliance, it deserves to be heard when it debunks the version of its own police. What is particularly condemnable is the police's attempt to rake up the alleged sexual history of the murdered girl, so as to deflect attention from the real issue. One had thought that, by amending the rules under the Orissa Freedom of Religions Act, the Naveen Patnaik Government had struck a fine balance between the ambitions of missionaries and the resolve of Orissa's desperately poor folk to preserve their faith.

Under the new rule, a person has to swear an affidavit before a magistrate that neither force nor monetary inducement had prompted his decision to change his faith. This much-needed safeguard against forced conversions angered certain interest groups. As a result, people were subjected to the pseudo-secular brigade's grim prognosis on the supposed "murder of Article 25". But, as has been repeatedly pointed out in court decisions, freedom of religion belongs first to the humble peasant, not the greenback-flashing agent of powerful religious institutions. It may be recalled that, even under British rule, there were many checks and balances on missionaries who used the Bible as some kind of placebo for all the problems faced by locals.

The difficulty with the Jyotirmoyee murder case is that the truth may be buried under a mountain of rhetoric. By a strange quirk, the Indian state condones trans-continental proselytisers who view its citizens as "heathens", but castigates Hindu cultural organisations for their campaign to protect the nation's integrity. Ironically, the popularity of these Hindu groups rise in direct proportion to the spurious attacks on their activities by the 'secular' brigade and its media backers. But those who fight forced conversions must not be complacent; they must step up the campaign against conversions-related exploitation of poverty and ignorance. The Patnaik Government, meanwhile, should take serious note of the Jyotirmoyee case and order a special inquiry by the Orissa Criminal Investigation Department. For, there seem grounds to believe that the local police have something to hide.


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