The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The recent ordinance issued by J. Jayalalithaa banning conversions “either by force, allurements or fraudulent means,” is more proof, if any were needed, that for all practical purposes Jayalalithaa’s current term in office signals the extent to which Hindutva is sinking deep roots within Tamil Nadu. Many of her public actions, from needlessly inviting controversy over the issue of conversion, to her open use of state power to organize “Annadhanam” at temples, and her apparent soft corner for Narendra Modi all suggest that Jayalalithaa has not only made her peace with the Bharatiya Janata Party, but will also court the most diehard Hindutva elements. Of course the style in which all this is being done is vintage Jayalalithaa: escalated rhetoric, an “I dare you to challenge me” attitude, and basic disregard for all the civilities and proprieties of a liberal democratic society.
Much of this bluster is of course being driven by political compulsions, particularly her need to solidify an understanding with the BJP. But the real significance of the draconian and ill considered anti-conversion ordinance is this. It reminds us that many of the incendiary issues that the BJP has capitalized upon have acquired a life independent of the political fortunes of the BJP itself. Hindutva in Gujarat now transcends Narendra Modi and has infected the Congress within Gujarat to a great extent. Anti-Christian sentiment in Rajasthan is fomented by many political groups in the state, and many anti-conversion measures were in the past sponsored by the Congress itself. Jayalalithaa’s open advocacy of the BJP’s political agenda is simply part of a pattern that suggests Hindutva has become larger than the BJP. Periods of relative calm must not lull us into the complacency that a serious assault on liberal values is not being legitimized by parties other than the BJP as well.
The Tamil Nadu conversion ordinance is, like most anti-conversion ordinances, a draconian directive. It requires that all conversions be reported to local magistrates, and imposes stiff penalties on those who “abet conversion”. The penalties are even higher if the targets are scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It has to be said that such basically anti-liberal legislation has been facilitated by the Supreme Court through its decisions in the Stanislaus case that some years ago upheld the Orissa and Madhya Pradesh anti-conversion legislations. The court’s reasoning on that occasion now provides some of the staple assumptions of anti-conversion legislation. These assumptions are evident in the Tamil Nadu ordinance as well.
The first assumption is that one can make a distinction between the freedom to propagate one’s religion on the one hand, which Article 25 of the Indian Constitution expressly protects, and attempts to convert someone of another religion. This is an extraordinarily obscure distinction. Second, there is an assumption that most conversions happen because of some material allurements being offered by the converting parties. The Supreme Court, and I suspect, many Hindus at large, think that this is scandalous. The idea that people should trade away their religion or consciences under some inducement is considered reprehensible.
All this may be true enough. But it ought to be even more scandalous that we feign horror at the prospect that people might convert for anything other that religious motives, but are barely offended by the fact that we live in societies where people are routinely put in such positions of deprivation that selling one’s soul seems like the most humane thing to do.
But the deeper worry about this attitude is this. In a liberal society the state ought not to be in the business of saving anybody’s souls. It really is irrelevant to the state what people’s motives behind choosing their religious confession are. We may find the fact that people choose their religion for all kinds of motives uncomfortable, but frankly it really is none of our business.
Third, there is the assumption that particular groups need protection. But again, there is something disquieting about the underlying assumptions. The Tamil Nadu ordinance, like other such ordinances and pronouncements of the Supreme Court, assumes that groups like the scheduled castes and tribes cannot manage their own beliefs and are more susceptible to being duped than everyone else. This is an extraordinarily condescending attitude towards the scheduled castes. It sets up the state as their benefactor and protector of their beliefs. It is ironical that parties associated with anti- Brahmanism can endorse the kind of condescension that has Brahmanism written all over it. Read the Tamil Nadu ordinance, read the Stanislaus decision of the Supreme Court, and you cannot but help thinking that all of our worries about conversion often stem from our patronizing attitudes to the poor and marginalized.
Fourth, there is the bizarre assumption that if force is being deployed to convert someone, we need special legislation. I would have assumed that it is illegal to force someone to do something against their will anyway, whether it is getting them to convert or to do something else. Allurement is too vague a term and doesn’t prima facie strike most people as a crime. Fifth, the argument that conversion is a threat to law and order is curiously self-fulfilling. It is a threat to law and order only because groups interfere with the right of individuals to exercise their free choices, for their own reasons.
Finally, in our political climate, there is a steadfast refusal to see conversion for what it might be. It might be a form of political dissension, a form of social protest, and an act of choice in a world which gives many of those who exercise it very few choices. In effect, anti-conversion legislation is an abridgment of fundamental political freedoms as well. Anti-conversion ordinances of the Tamil Nadu variety are illiberal at their very core. Its only purpose is to consolidate a supposedly Hindu constituency; Jayalalithaa cares neither for the scheduled tribes, nor genuine religious piety.
The Tamil Nadu ordinance is a harbinger of the fact that Hindutva can gain ground without the BJP as well. It signifies that we don’t understand the basic premises of our liberty, so we are often ready to excuse such measures simply because they do not stem from our favourite enemy. It is a sign that in India, as the Supreme Court has often exemplified, the state is not averse to regulating people’s beliefs for them, often in the name of protecting them. And it is a sign that if we deify our politicians they will, as Jayalalithaa is beginning to, claim god’s mantle. That, like most gods, they will be very fickle, condoning Hindutva violence one day, and anti-Kannada sentiment the next, should be of little comfort. We should have a debate on conversions, and defeat every anti-conversion ordinance that jeopardizes our liberties.