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.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A blow to conversion

Tribal converts to Christianity are not fit to head the community. Because it is the headman who performs both the religious and administrative functions for them. This landmark judgement of the Supreme Court on March 28, went largely unreported and hence unnoticed. Perhaps only the Times of India in Delhi carried this report.

But the suppression of this judgement, accidental or deliberate, does not undermine its far-reaching consequences. For, the Christian missionaries have for long been contesting that the converted tribal and Scheduled Castes members should get the same rights and privileges as the native religionists. The nationalist forces have been insisting that such universalisation of privileges would only encourage proselytization and that would also go against the very grain of natural justice. Christianity and Islam project themselves as non-caste egalitarian religions. And they claim that theirs is a liberating theology. Hence, there is no rationale to take the reservation and other benefits that were meant as atonements for the centuries old socio-economic backwardness of the Hindu society.

The Supreme Court’s significant decision came from a verdict upholding the provisions of the United Khasi Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Appointment and Succession of Chiefs and Headman) Act which exclude persons belonging to Christian faith from contesting elections to the post of Dolloi (headman) in Elaka Jowai in Meghalaya.

A converted Christian Ewanlangki-e-Rymbai who was a member of Jaintia Scheduled Tribe had challenged the constitutional validity of Section 3 of the Act providing for exclusion of Christians from contesting elections to the post of headman. He was supported by Elaka Jowai Secular Movement, a Christian front organisation.

They had contended that Section 3 was unconstitutional as it sought to discriminate on the ground of religion and was hence violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to equality to all citizens.

The apex court bench comprising Justice B.P. Singh and Justice Arun Kumar agreed with the Gauhati High Court view that since time immemorial the custom is to appoint one headman who is to perform both administrative and religious functions. The Supreme Court said that a Christian is rightly barred from contesting for the post of Dolloi (headman) as he cannot perform the religious functions of the community and it is impossible to separate the religious and administrative functions of the headman. “There was no custom to appoint two Dolloi—one for performance of administrative duties and the other for the performance of religious functions”, the court ruled. Thus the apex court rejected the appeal and upheld the Gauhati High Court decision. The court explained, the tribals are governed by common customary laws of their own in the matters of administration as well as following religious faith. “The ground for exclusion of Christians is not solely on the ground of religion, but on account of the admitted fact that a Christian cannot perform the religious functions attached to the office of Dolloi,” ruled Justice B.P. Singh.

The apex court verdict is of great relevance and value in the contemporary political milieu where the debate on the evangelists’ aggressive campaign on their right to convert has reached a crescendo. The evangelists have been on a militant aggression to harvest souls exploiting the economic and social backwardness of the tribal population. In this they have even been arguing that the tribals are not Hindus. With foreign fund and their expertise in trampling and subjugating native faiths world over, the Christian missionary organisations are systematically trying to spread disaffection, confusion and anarchy in the tribal belt. This was being resisted by the tribal organisations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and other local institutions. This was also the rationale behind the grand celebration of the Shabari Kumbh at Dang in Gujarat to assert the tribal right. But this nationalist effort cannot succeed without the active administrative and judicial support.

This aid has come from the apex court decision in this particular instance. Conversion not only alienates people from their native religion, tradition, custom and culture, but in many ways as is happening in parts of the North-East, turns them against their motherland and they become a sore thumb on the body polity.

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