The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why is religious conversion any different from other conversions'

Consider this — religious conversions are permissible if they are genuine, and not brought about by fraud or coercion.

That many reasonable people would agree with this statement demonstrates the extent to which the Hindu right has transformed the terms of public debate in India. What, after all, do “fraud” and “coercion” mean' Of course, no decision taken on the basis of actual physical force, or the threat of it, can be legitimate. But nobody believes that conversion “by the sword” is an issue today. (It is another matter that if it had ever been seriously practised in India, Muslims would not be a mere 12 per cent of the population, and Christians less than 3 per cent, after centuries of rule.)

Going by the last election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party, fraud and coercion refer to “promises of social or economic benefits” but many opponents of the BJP, too, would endorse this interpretation. Genuine religious conversion, on the other hand, is understood to involve the spiritual transformation of an individual on the basis of “knowledge”, both of the person’s “own” religion as well as of the one to which he converts. Informed choice, in other words. Interesting notion, considering one’s original religion is hardly the best illustration of “choice” — you’re born into it, right'

So ignorant Dalits or tribals, who convert to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the hope of, and lured by, economic benefits — jobs, schools, health facilities — and social benefits — dignity, self-respect — are instances of fraudulent conversion. Pandita Ramabai and Babasaheb Ambedkar may be conceded as genuine, not by the Hindu right, for whom they are traitors, but by liberals, who will, nevertheless, not refrain from pointing out that hierarchies of caste and gender continue to operate in all these religions as well, so the move is at best, misguided.

The unquestioned foundation of the entire discussion is the assumption that converting from one religion to another is essentially wrong, an act requiring justification. The recent self-defined exposé by a weekly on George W. Bush’s conversion agenda in India, is a typical example of this kind of thinking. The research simply showed that conversions to Christianity are indeed taking place, that people who have converted claim they no longer have troubles — a claim triumphantly disproved by the reporter with the fact that one of the interviewees lost a family member in an accident recently. A film on Christ has been successfully used to draw villagers to Christianity — this is written about in a way as if the very showing of such films is a breach of trust or legality, or both. There is also evidence of a lot of funding from the United States of America for conversion activities, but then foreign funding comes in for a range of other activities, from business investments to development work, to political agendas, especially those of the Hindu right.

My question is — why is religious conversion essentially different in a democracy from other kinds of conversion' When rival companies bid for candidates offering higher salaries and better perks, inducing them to convert from one employer to another, why is that not fraudulent' When political parties attempt to convert voters with wild promises, when Naxalites are wooed back into mainstream society by the state, when political ideologies — of the market or of Marxists or of feminists or of the Hindu right — attempt to convert with promises of redemption and threats of various kinds, both material and spiritual, why are all these not fraudulent' If by conversion we mean a total change of identity, I might point out that this is what a perfectly ordinary marriage involves for most women — change of name (in many communities even the first name), place of residence, way of life, and in general a complete restructuring of their sense of self.

I don’t understand why religion should occupy a special place from all of the above in a modern democracy. Not that I don’t know what the answer will be — religion is a matter of the spirit and not of crass materiality, it should be governed by different standards. In that case, why expect the state to intervene at all in this sacred realm' After all, even from the gods of their ancestors, people expect material benefits. What is the worship of Lakshmi all about, and students’ earnest prayers during examinations' Why not ask the state to enact laws against the performance of pujas and religious ceremonies in general for material benefit' A puja hoping for better profits in business is “religion”, but converting to another religion hoping your children can go to school is “economics”'

For the democratically-minded who buy the argument against “fraudulent” conversions from what I consider to be mistaken premises, here’s another thought. It is fundamentally anti-democratic to force people to retain any identity against their will, especially one assumed by the very act of being born — nationality, caste, religion or even sex. The possibility of change is central to democracy. We have no option but to respect a decision to change any identity for a perceived better future, whatever our opinion about whether that change will bring about the desired result. That’s the problem with democracy.

Of course, the real reason behind the Hindu right’s obsession with religious conversion has nothing to do with protecting the sanctity of religion. The creation of a birth-based political majority is crucial for the project of Hindutva and for its definition of Indian-ness. If “others” turn into the majority, the easy coinciding of Hindutva and the Nation falls apart. When Ambedkar decided to leave the Hindu fold along with large numbers of Dalits, who felt the most threatened' Not the orthodox Hindus, who thought it was good riddance. It was Savarkar and the modernist Hindutvavadis who reacted most sharply, understanding fully the importance of numbers for a modern politics of Hindutva. Hence their ever-increasing horror stories about galloping Muslim and Christian populations, the most recent example being the Indian Council for Social and Scientific Research-sponsored study on the decline in population of “Indian religionists”.

Recognizing this, it worries me that most democratic and secular arguments contesting this picture have restricted themselves to factual corrections and reinterpretation of data. Essentially, they have been trapped into offering reassurances that there is no way Muslims and Christians will outnumber Hindus, ever. Surely we need to ask another, more aggressive question of our own instead — so what if Hindus become a minority one hundred years from now, or a decade from now, or a year from now' Surely the point is to ensure democratic institutions such that it will make no difference how large your community of birth is'

Many of my generation studied in Christian institutions, we participated in Bible quizzes, at some point some of us may even have thought of converting (our modern young minds drawn to the clean quiet of the chapel, so different from the messy humanity of temples), we often wore crosses. Our parents were usually indulgent, and confident about themselves. Hindutva has managed to make an 85 per cent-strong majority community feel insecure about the strength of its durable traditions, unsure of the ability of these traditions to survive. Congratulations. Even a thousand years of “Muslim rule” couldn’t achieve this.

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