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.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

My Hopeful Visit With Kind People

A lovely, precious land besieged by fanaticism

By Renu S. Malhotra, Grand Rapids, Michigan

The beauty of arunachal and Assam keeps us connected to Mother Nature's power. It is only my second day here and I am in a most interesting place. It's Maajuli in Assam, the largest river island in the world. For ages, it has endured the force of the surrounding water that flows so erratically it is sometimes affectionately referred to as Paglaa Nadi, which means "Crazy River."

There are three satras in Maajuli. A satra is a very ancient monastery-like school of sorts. In these satras young children are taught ancient dance, drama and music to keep the rich heritage of the area alive for posterity. As we visit each of the satras, the students perform for us. Their discipline is impeccable.

People from the Vivekananda Kendra are hosting me all through my travels, and I have many opportunities to carefully observe their work and its effect, which is very extensive in this part of the world. They have 41 schools in just two states alone--a big achievement. The dedication of the jeevan vratis (life workers) of the Kendras has earned them such a fine reputation that their schools are favored over those managed by Christian missionaries.

One of the many reasons the Kendra schools are so popular is that they include instruction in the native and ancestral arts. Arun Jyaoti, a cultural arm of the Kendra, is helping the indigenous population to adapt to modern times while retaining their traditional values and lifestyle.

In India there is a saying, "Atithi Devo Bhava, " which means a guest is like a God. Everywhere we go we are offered food and drink. In Tafra Gaon, Arunachal Pradesh, it is so beautiful that I want to stay back and be a student. In this serene environment, children learn easily. Bright and early each morning these young ones can be heard singing songs as they welcome the day before taking hatha yoga class.

My two days in Numaligharh are special. Numaligharh is a small town near the Kaziranga Wild Life Sanctuary in Arunachal. Here, the Vivekananda Kendra runs a small hospital which is extraordinarily clean and well equipped. It is a sort of a one-stop treatment center staffed by well-trained, courteous medical personnel. If ever I need medical care while in India, I would like to receive it here.

The sometimes violent Christian missionary zeal to "harvest souls " has become a long-standing obstacle to the peaceful coexistence of the various jana jaathi, or tribal natives of this area. The Ramakrishna Mission also lives under a perpetual threat posed by newly converted Christians who are armed and especially zealous. All through our travels I am cautioned to be careful, as there is always a risk of death at the hands of these Christian fanatics!

Although violence and oppression hang like clouds over these beautiful people, they are somehow able to maintain some semblance of that benign innocence that every human being is born with. It is my firm conviction that the Hindus of Northeast India could enjoy a peaceful future, if they would stand strong against Christian conversion now. I have confidence in this because I am fortified by a faith in the people of India. As a friend of mine once told me, "India lives because a lot of people work constantly for her out of love and admiration."


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