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, March 30, 2005

US duplicity in denying visa to Modi

April 03, 05

By Sandhya Jain

America’s decision to deny Gujarat chief minister Naren-dra Modi a diplomatic visa and revoke his tourist/business visa on the pretext of the demands of its International Religious Freedom Act, 1998, raises critical questions about what constitutes religious freedom. The statement that the Act authorizes the President to deny entry to foreign government officials responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” is an unwarranted indictment of Mr. Modi and calls for scrutiny by analysts.

The concept of religious freedom espoused by America is a Euro-centric definition imposed upon the world after the Second World War, in the form of Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Promoted as a universal doctrine, though not founded upon genuine international consensus, this concept has been used by Western nations to advance their own religion and culture and impinge upon the religious freedom of other nations and faith groups.

Arguing this before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in March 2000, Prof. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professsor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, pointed out that Article 18 is tilted in favour of proselytizing religions. While it recognizes an individual’s right to change his/her religion, it fails to give equal respect to the individual’s right to retain his/her faith. In short, it upholds the right to proselytize, but disregards the individual’s right to resist being made an object of proselytization. The latter view was upheld by the Indian Supreme Court (1 September 2003), which ruled that there was “no fundamental right to convert” anyone from one religion to another and that the government could impose restrictions on conversions.

What is religious freedom?

The invocation of freedom of religion to insult Modi is directly linked to President George Bush’s massive conversion agenda in India, and is his way of expressing anger at the resistance offered by the RSS, to which Modi owes allegiance. Discerning Indians may be aware of a Tehelka expose (7 February 2004), which revealed that the American government funds major US Christian groups to pursue religious conversions in India. Though the funds are officially given for social work only, they are used for the dual purpose of conversion. Not surprisingly, Tehelka linked these conversion activities to forces inimical to India’s integrity.

In my view, government-funded conversion activities violate Western principles of separation of Church and State. They also contravene the doctrine of secularism, as they favour certain Christian denominations over others, in the matter of disbursal of funds under President Bush’s faith-based initiative. A petition in this regard in the Federal Supreme Court by American Indians aggrieved at the presidential action could yield interesting results.

Meanwhile, it would be instructive to examine the ideological colour of those who worked to deny Shri Modi the visa, and the merits (if any) of the charges levelled against him. A group calling itself the Coalition Against Genocide and claiming to represent 35 NRI bodies was at the forefront of the campaign. A perusal of the signatories shows the usual Left and minority intellectuals of Indian descent. The Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) openly welcomed the US government’s decision, and gave the game away.

While Indian American Senator Bobby Jindal kept a low profile, Ms. Preeta Bansal, chairperson of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said she advised the State Department to prevent the Gujarat Chief Minister’s visit. Disrespecting the sentiments of the American Indian community that invited Shri Modi, USCIRF glibly claimed that India’s National Human Rights Commission had found evidence of the Gujarat government’s complicity in the riots of 2002.

Government-funded conversion activities violate Western principles of separation of Church and State. They also contravene the doctrine of secularism, as they favour certain Christian denominations over others, in the matter of disbursal of funds under President Bush’s faith-based initiative.

The US State Department also tried to make NHRC a scapegoat when political opinion in this country uniformly condemned the insult to the constitutionally elected leader. Its Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli claimed that it was the “Indian Government who determined that state institutions failed to act in a way that would prevent violence and would prevent religious persecution.” The NGO lobby was more outspoken. The Indian Supreme Court, it said, had passed strictures against the Gujarat government in the Best Bakery case; ordered re-opening of 2,000-odd riot cases that had been closed after inquiry; and shifted two cases outside Gujarat.

Now this is too clever by half. Both the State Department and its friendly NGOs would know that the NHRC chief, Shri A.S. Anand, was taken for a ride by a well-orchestrated media-NGO campaign of vilification against the Gujarat Chief Minister. As a result, Shri Anand accepted printed pamphlets in lieu of a signed affidavit and approached the Supreme Court to transfer the riot cases outside Gujarat.

The apex court responded to this plea without examining the requisite documents. Thus, when star witness Zahira Sheikh told the trial court that she had never signed any affidavit seeking transfer of the Best Bakery trial outside Gujarat, the NGOs were exposed as having a hidden agenda! The Supreme Court and NHRC were deeply embarrassed, a fact adequately covered in the Indian media. For the American Embassy in Delhi to pretend to be unaware of these developments is untenable. Since judges are bound by a code of conduct, the NHRC has clarified that it made no indictment of any government functionary in the riots, let alone the Chief Minister. Hence Washington’s claim that NHRC recommendations influenced its decision is baseless.

It seems undeniable that the American definition of freedom of religion is slanted in favour of monotheistic traditions. That is why, as Shri Modi pointed out, there was no tinge of remorse when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were victimized by Pak-sponsored terrorists, or when Bangladesh systematically reduced its Hindu minority from 30 percent of the population to a bare ten percent. For Indians engaged in the struggle to preserve their ancestral faith and culture, there is more to the snub to Shri Modi than meets the eye.


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