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, October 23, 2006

Gujarat Anti-Conversion Bill A distinction of the Indian and foreign

Sandhya Jain
October 1, 2006

The state government has rightly defined the faith lines as the Hindu, Christian and Islamic streams. So, if a Hindu is to be converted to Christianity, the district magistrate must ensure that there is no foul play.

Gujarat has made a major stride in the proper definition of the nation’s Indic traditions by delineating the Jain and Bauddha streams as part of the larger Hindu community for purposes of evaluating religious conversions. The Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill 2006 is significant precisely for the logical coherence it bestows upon faith communities, placing Jains and Bauddhas in the Hindu mainstream, Shias and Sunnis in the Islamic brotherhood, and Protestants and Catholics with the Christian community. This is unexceptionable because it takes into consideration the logical fact that inter-marriages frequently take place amongst these groups, which at least for Muslims and Christians sometimes involve a formal conversion to the opposite sect. The involvement of the government or local administration in such a personal matter, where no inter-communal harmony is at stake, could amount to needless bureaucratisa-tion or even harassment.

Formal conversions are mostly not required amongst the Jain, Bauddha and Hindu laity as multiple religious affiliation is the Indic norm. It would mainly apply in the event of formal initiation into monkhood, i.e., a Hindu becoming a Jain muni or bhikshu would need formal initiation into that tradition, and so on. Since all these dharmic traditions have grown on the soil of India and intermingle in their history, philosophy, and theology, perpetuating the colonial view that they are separate (even opposing) traditions is not only arid, but dangerously divisive. Within the Jain tradition, many of the most eminent acharyas have come from the Brahmin community, and state intervention for every initiation would be regarded as unduly intrusive, and in any case, cannot be regarded as a conversion similar to the acceptance of a monotheistic faith. The state government has therefore rightly defined the faith lines as the Hindu, Christian and Islamic streams. So, if a Hindu is to be converted to Christianity, the district magistrate must ensure that there is no foul play.

This is all the more imperative as Pope Benedict XVI’s recent and controversial speech at the University of Regensburg shows he has no respect for image-worshipping communities (labelled as idolators), and regards them as fit targets for evangelism. The bill has understandably enraged the evangelical industry which has been targeting Gujarat in the big way for the past two decades. The great Narendra Modi-baiter, Father Cedric Prakash, called it “extremely draconian and unconstitutional.” The opposition Congress party claimed that the bill could be legally challenged as Bauddha dharma was given the status of a separate religion by the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 and Jains by a division bench of the Supreme Court in 2004. This argument overlooks the fact that the matter is still with the court, and that the then Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti had called for reducing, rather than increasing, the number of minorities in the country.

But the (unrecognised) industry for the fragmentation of India, which has ‘chapters’ in all communities, has galvanized its members to protest the designation of Jain and Bauddha communities as Hindu denominations. Mr Hamid Ansari, Chairman, National Commission for Minorities, has supported the separatist trend, saying: “Legislators cannot, and should not, decide the religious identity of a community this way. This decision has to be taken by the community itself in a democratic manner.” Udit Raj, Chairman of the All-India Confederation of SCs/STs Organisations, which has close links with evangelical groups in India and America, lambasted the move on behalf of the “Buddhist community (sic).” Mr Chakresh Jain, President, Delhi Jain Samaj, alleged that Jains would hold nation-wide protests, saying: “The move is absolutely against the wishes of the Jain community. We are not Hindus at all.”

This is clearly a politically motivated statement, and is known to have the backing of powerful financial interests that see economic gain from minority status, i.e., in running educational institutions without quota and other restrictions. These business groups have also sought to recruit respected saints for the “minority tag.” It needs to be emphasised, however, that there can be no honest account of the history of Jain dharma without reflecting its common origins in Hindu dharma, its religious and cultural symbols, categories of thought and social organisation, political history, etc. In other words, it is not possible to discuss the Jains without reference to the Hindus. The minority tag is the greed of a few business families seeking undue advantage for themselves; the experience of the community is that in states where Jains received minority status, the lower rungs of society were weaned away by missionaries (eg. Madhya Pradesh), and the community received no advantage. While Chief Minister Narendra Modi felt discretion the better part of valour while leaving Sikh dharma out of the purview of Hindu dharma, separatism bodes ill for that community as well.

Sikh leaders keen on preserving their ‘separate’ status would do well to undertake a district-wise survey of Punjab and enumerate the number of churches (especially since Capt. Amarinder Singh became the Chief Minister) vis-à-vis the stated Christian population per district. It will give them an idea of what lies ahead for them if they persist with the ‘we-are-not-Hindus’ refrain. Safety lies in non-fragmentation. It may be pertinent to note that even the Union Home Ministry has conceded that the conversions of Indic communities by missionaries of all denominations is a major cause of social unrest and communal disharmony in the country. In an agenda paper prepared for the National Integration Council on August 31, 2005, the Ministry highlighted the activities of Christian evangelists in Kota, Rajasthan and attempts to convert Hindus by Muslims in Dakshin Kannada, Karnataka, as instances of such discord.


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