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.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Offensive proselytisation is the problem

By Sandhya Jain
Orissa alone received Rs. 128.95 crores of foreign funds for the activities of 1005 mainly missionary organisations there in the year 2005, according to Home Ministry figures. Mr. Graham Staines and his wife Gladys were among these missionaries whose dubious activities in the state were funded by foreign governments to serve a larger agenda.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh owes the nation an apology for pandering to foreign Christian minorities to the extent of debasing India’s sovereignty and national pride. In an act of shameful supplication before Mrs. Gladys Staines, widow of Australian missionary Graham Staines, who mercifully terminated her unwelcome presence in this country some years ago, Dr Singh said: “Please be assured that we will not tolerate any efforts aimed at disturbing the communal harmony or secular fabric of our country.”

No doubt encouraged by the continued domination of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi over the UPA government, Ms. Staines had written to the Prime Minister about the recent violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. In response, Dr Singh promised the Centre would take all measures necessary to “safeguard the fundamental rights and liberties of all sections of our society and protect their religious freedom as enshrined in the constitution.”

It is simply atrocious that the Prime Minister should elevate the widow of an alien missionary to the position of an extra-constitutional supremo, and discuss domestic affairs with her, and even make assurances on the internal affairs of the country. It may be pertinent to recall that Graham Staines was burnt alive while sleeping in his jeep in Keonjhar district on January 23, 1999, by Vanvasis agitated over his conversion activities in the region. While the death of his two minor sons made the episode very tragic, the motivated outrage over the incident has silenced criticism of his methods and motivations for living in India. His widows’ unwelcome missive has in that respect opened old wounds.

Instead of promising Ms. Staines that the Centre would urgently restore normalcy in the region (i.e., make it conducive for evangelism again), the Prime Minister should have ordered a Niyogi Commission type of investigation into Vanvasi animosity against evangelists who insult their gods and traditions, and seek to annihilate their cultures. The Centre should also expose the new and aggressive political interventions being made by the church to steal the benefits of Hindu SCs and STs for converts, and thus further exploit the misled converts.

Only the naïve will believe that the dramatic 8-km trek undertaken by Kerala Chief Minister VS Achyutanandan to the Sabarimalai shrine was driven by concern for the comfort of pilgrims. It is more likely a political response to the church’s recent political hostility to his party, and a signal to the Hindu community that he will rely upon it for survival. This phenomenon, which I would call the Hinduisation of Indian secularism, has begun to creep into the polity and is a positive development. The days when political parties could gainfully brow-beat the Hindus are truly behind us.

To return to Orissa, it bears emphasising that the violence in Kandhamal district which took several lives, was triggered off by a planned Christian attack upon 83-year-old Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, who was on his way to perform a yajna at Brahmanigaon, a Christian dominated village, 150 km from district headquarters of Phulbani. Later, a 500-strong mob burnt Hindu houses and opened fire at the police station.

According to the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, Kandhamal and Bauddh districts were carved out of Phulbani in the last decade. There were 75,800 Christians (8.8 per cent of the population) in the composite Phulbani district in 1991, which rose to 118,200 (11.6 per cent) in 2001. Kandhamal was carved in a manner that it encompassed almost all Christians of the old composite district. Thus, while Kandhamal has 118,000 Christians (18.2 per cent of its population), Bauddh district has only 239-odd Christians.

According to the 2001 Census, Scheduled Tribes comprise 52 per cent of the population of Kandhamal and Scheduled Castes about 19 per cent. More than 60 per cent of the Christians hail from the Pana community, which is SC, and speak the Kui language of the local Kui Vanvasis. As ‘Dalit Christians’ are not entitled to SC reservations, the church organisations are demanding ST status for the Pana Christians. This is because the Indian Constitution failed to properly define Scheduled Tribes and the critical issue whether converts to Christianity could be classified as STs. Large-scale conversions in the north-east decided the issue by default in favour of converts.

Understandably, the Vanvasi population of Kandhamal resents the demand by Pana Christians for ST status. Shri Padmanabh Behera, who resigned from the Naveen Patnaik government over this issue, is a Pana. The state government’s commissioner-cum-secretary of the ST and SC Development Department, Shri Taradatt, said that it is not possible to include all Kui language speakers as Scheduled Tribes.

Orissa alone received Rs. 128.95 crores of foreign funds for the activities of 1005 mainly missionary organisations there in the year 2005, according to Home Ministry figures. Mr. Graham Staines and his wife Gladys were among these missionaries whose dubious activities in the state were funded by foreign governments to serve a larger agenda.

India needs a blanket ban on conversions to Abrahamic faiths, especially as these are invariably funded by foreign governments. This is borne out by the fact that historically, when Arab traders settled on the coast of Gujarat they did not indulge in proselytisation; nor did Syrian Christians in the South. It is when their co-religionists arrived as conquerors and gave the call to the embedded locals that communal disharmony became a Hindu experience.

Even more urgently, India needs to correct the error of granting reservations to converts in any category reserved for Hindus to overcome historical social stigmas or backwardness. This applies to ST quotas for Christians and OBC quotas for Muslims. The well-funded minority evangelists must either fulfil the promises of social and economic elevation made at the time of making converts or let the converted return to their natal faiths. As neither Islam nor Christianity recognises Vanvasi identities of converts in their respective theologies, they must abjure reservations on grounds of erased identities.

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