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

Proselytisation: Is Congress a theological seminary?

By Shivraj Singh Chouhan

Gandhiji’s ideas were still influencing the Congress when in 1954 the then Madhya Pradesh government constituted the Neogi Committee to study missionary activities at micro-level in tribal areas.

This column is about state and political stagecraft. Leaders who shape the social environment by their grassroot personal touch discuss their experience.

Protesting against amendments to an Act introduced recently in BJP-ruled states to check fraudulent proselytisation, Congress President and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Mrs Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Dr John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council and President of the All India Catholic Union. She said, “The Congress Party’s views on this are well known. These are enactments passed by the state legislature where the Congress is in Opposition. The Congress Party has opposed this strongly in the assembly and through demonstrations.” Sadly, only a novice in political history of Congress and its post-freedom development would say something like what Sonia has said in the letter.

It was the Congress Party with some traces of the Mahatma Gandhi still left in it that had passed the anti-conversion laws. So, while Mahatma Gandhi had commended a ban on conversions, the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi is opposing even a ban on fraudulent conversion.

Mahatma Gandhi had written extensively against conversions. He wrote in Young India on April 23, 1931, “I hold that proselytisation under the cloak of human work is unhealthy, to say the least.” Later, he went one step further and wrote, “If I had the power to legislate, I should stop all proselytisation work.” (Young India, November 5, 1935). He told the missionaries, “He is ashamed of them” (Young India, August 8, 1925), disputed their claim that theirs “is the only true religion” (Harijan, June 3, 1937), warned that “conversion should not mean denationalisation” (August 8, 1925). He also pointed out that it means just that, as many converts are “ashamed of their birth” and of their ancestry (August 20, 1925). “This is a very deep intrusion, as the religious person is the deepest, the most basic in any individual. When that person is disturbed, a hurt is sustained, which is very deep. The religious person is violated. The depth of this hurt is attested by the fact that when a religious sentiment is violated, it can produce a martyr. People connected to a converted person are deeply hurt. Even the converted person will suffer some hurt underneath,” Gandhiji had said.

Gandhiji’s ideas were still influencing the Congress when in 1954 the then Madhya Pradesh government constituted the Neogi Committee to study missionary activities at micro-level in tribal areas.

The committee exposed the massive, fraudulent conversions of tribal people and recommended that there was an urgent need of a law to be enacted to ban fraudulent practices and activities launched by missionaries. Acting upon recommendations, the Congress-led MP government enforced the Neogi-recommended law banning conversions in 1968. Another Congress-led Orissa government did so even earlier in 1967. And Arunachal Pradesh under the Indira Gandhi-led Central rule of the government also passed a similar law.

Much to my chagrin, my government has been picketed and questioned and still receiving many brickbats over a thin amendment, introduced in the assembly on July 21 that requires clergy and ‘prospective converts’ to notify authorities of the intent to change religion one month before a ‘conversion ceremony’. I believe in a democratic nation, the government authorities should be empowered to know whether the conversion was ‘forced’ or ‘ by allurement’.

Let’s consider the Section 191 (1-A) of CrPC, which says, “No court shall take cognizance of an offence involving inducement for conversion unless the prosecution has obtained previous sanction of the central government or of the state government or of the district magistrate.” Then it is beyond my cerebral capacity to understand as to how mere informing the government authorities prior to conversion is an act of intolerance. It is the minimum decency one can ask for. But there are no debates on legislative provisions of some nations including Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Maldives and Iran where conversion attracts even capital punishment or at least severe imprisonment.

Take another example. In her most stunning feat as Congress Spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan says that the right to propagate one’s religion under Article 25 includes the right to convert. She is also of the view that conversion ban existing in certain states like Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa (two of them imposed by the Congress itself) should be rethought and rescinded by future governments. At the same time, she hopes that the Supreme Court’s 1977 verdict on banning fraudulent conversion will be revised by a separate bench.

Does the Congress share the dangerous proposition put forward by Jayanti Natarajan? Why does Congress and Ms Natarajan evade spraying questions at Vatican City, which does not permit conversion? Why is Pope so much concerned about conversion in India only?

Why does he not queer European governments’ pitch on some laws that are termed as “sin against God”? What happens to theological and liturgical innovations of Pope Benedict XVI while calling Protestants “wolf” when he helplessly sees them gaining grounds in the last 30 years in Latin America riding on conversion wave of Roman Catholics?

What should such people be called in India when they launch similar moves of conversion through frauds and allurement?

In 1977, the honourable Supreme Court had dismissed a petition filed against Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam 1968 and Orissa Freedom of Religion Act. The court clarified: Article 25 of Indian Constitution guarantees to all persons right to freedom and conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health. The word ‘propagate’ has been used in the Article as meaning to transmit or spread from person to person or from place to place. The Article does not grant right to convert other person to one’s own religion but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets. The freedom of religion enshrined in Article 25 is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only but covers all religions alike, which can be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like of freedom of persons following other religion. What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion. And the Madhya Pradesh Act prohibits conversion from one religion to another by use of force, allurement or fraudulent means and matters incidental there to.”

Apart from reasons and logics, there is another important issue, which I request all the readers to consider. Recanting the notion of proponents and champions of conversion I would say conversion is not a part of universal declaration of human rights. A European human rights court found no fault in a Greece Act that defines conversion a criminal act and puts a ban on it. Similarly, a great nation like Russia does not allow even Catholic churches, Solvent Army and Jehovah’s Witness and other religious groups for conversion. ‘Great Commission’ of Jesus is not a mandate of all religions. Other nations of the world also guarantee a freedom to their citizens to follow religion or religions and religious beliefs of their choices. A number of people simultaneously follow Buddhism, Shinto and Tao in Japan and China. The Nepalese follow both Hindu and Buddhist religions in their country.

Before I conclude, I would like to quote Bapu once again. He had said, “I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the word. It is a highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbour as to his faith, which I must honour even as I honour my own. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Mussulman or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own.” (Harijan, September 9, 1935)

The Congressmen and their leader Mrs Sonia Gandhi want to take political mileage of the amendment to the Act. And her team in Madhya Pradesh preferred shouting slogans in the assembly to debating the Bill—an act that gives weight to my belief that Congress is unanimously bent to shirk responsibilities—responsibilities of life, study and expressions.

(The writer is Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.)

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