The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, specializes in surprises. She has suddenly pushed through an ordinance banning religious conversion “by force, allurement or fraudulent means”. Midnight is rather a surprising time for an ordinance — and the Constitution bars forcible conversion anyway. But the dramatic use of a discretionary power without perceptible cause is even more surprising. The provision for promulgating ordinances was made with an emergency situation in mind. When a law needs to be passed urgently between sessions of Parliament, an ordinance may be promulgated, pending ratification when Parliament sits next. Given the theme of the ordinance, it is not clear why Ms Jayalalithaa is in such a tearing hurry. Conversion has not been drummed up as an issue in her region. It is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s pet bogey, manifested in the slightly insane anti-conversion and “reconversion” activities of its more chauvinistic fronts, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. The obsession with conversion is an expression of hostility towards Christianity, which is considered in ultra-Hindu circles as a “foreign” religion. Tamil Nadu has hardly been seen as hotbed of missionary activism, apart from the fact that it is caste, rather than religion, which is the primary principle of social arrangement and division there.
Perhaps it is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s warm approval of Ms Jayalalithaa’s move that provides the clue. The Tamil Nadu chief minister’s slow inclination towards the BJP has been showing for some time now. Her outburst over the unacceptability of Ms Sonia Gandhi as possible prime minister because of the latter’s foreign origins came out of the blue, as did the present ordinance. Both have improved her standing with the BJP. Even without taking future alliances into consideration, this would immediately help her score points against Mr M. Karunanidhi and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Ms Jayalalithaa is not likely to forget her humiliation of having to step down, though for a short while, from the chief ministership even after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won such a resounding victory in Tamil Nadu. It is important to exhibit the fact that she and the BJP think alike. For Ms Jayalalithaa, division and hostility over a non-existent issue can be conjured out of thin air if that helps her accomplish her purpose. In a land barely recovered from sectarian violence, this is a particularly irresponsible and heartless means. But Ms Jayalalithaa never let a sense of responsibility stop her.