Monday, 30th October 2017

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Conversion controversies

How converters could be made to stop offering inducements

By Ashok Sanjay Guha
  • Published 29.05.15
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Careful listeners to the recent cacophony about conversions would find to their surprise that some of the most vocal participants in it speak, or rather shout, in two sharply discordant voices. Left-leaning liberals argue, quite justifiably, that the cherished principle of freedom of belief implies the freedom to practise and propagate one's faith and that propagation of one's faith is meaningless without the right to persuade others to share in it. The same leftist liberals, however, are extraordinarily reluctant to extend these rights and freedoms universally. What is sauce for the Muslim or Christian gander is apparently not sauce for the Hindu goose. The Christian missionary or Muslim proselytizer who converts others is simply exercising his inalienable constitutional right; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad pracharak who organizes a ghar wapsi belongs to a different species altogether: he, it seems, is indulging in an act of heinous Hindu fanaticism.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who welcome the left-liberal aversion to ghar wapsi: let's do away with it, they say, since it offends your sentiments; while about it, let's do away with other conversions as well, since they offend ours; let's legislate all conversions out of existence. Thus, one of our most basic rights is likely to be abrogated, but neither of the two major contenders in the debate about it can build a logically consistent case for its retention.

Why, one may ask, is conversion such an emotive issue? Why does it generate such intense heat and passion? Objectively considered, conversion is merely a matter of re-labelling or re-branding. Sometimes it is accompanied by a change of content; more often, all that changes is the caption. Where there is a genuine change of belief, rechristening is irrelevant: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, while a skunk cannot mask his body odour whatever the identity he assumes. A change of heart cannot be revoked by banning a change of name. If, on the other hand, all that has changed is a label, we are discussing a voluntary transaction between consenting adults, one that appears to them to be of mutual advantage. The proselytizer acquires a new recruit. The proselyte, on the other hand, has traded in his old label for a new one with collateral benefits. Both parties directly involved in the transaction are better off. Then, why ban it?

Clearly a ban on conversions can be imposed only at the instance of third parties. Presumably, conversions should be outlawed not because they injure the direct participants but because they violate the rights of outsiders. Which rights specifically? Hardly the right to life and liberty, to freedom of expression and assembly, to equality before the law, to freedom of religion and belief or even the newfangled right to education. Perhaps the right to the pursuit of happiness - if the third party cannot feel happy unless he can intervene in the relationship of others to their god, or at least to their favourite preacher? A moratorium on conversions and reconversions of all varieties - including ghar wapsi - can be justified only if we concede the right of sundry nosy parkers to intrude into the most private spaces of other individuals.

Conversions by coercion fall in a different category: they violate the fundamental principle that in any society the State has the monopoly of coercive authority. The private use of force for any purpose, from robbery to conversion, is strictly illegal and punishable in almost all societies. Even in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the participatory pastime of stoning adulterers to death seems to have fallen out of fashion, giving way to the impersonal and sanitized conduct of executions by the State. If coercion is always a crime, do we really need to criminalize a specific form of coercion?

Conversion through the offer of inducements has often been clubbed with conversion by coercion as something equally reprehensible. Such an equation is based on a total misreading of the moral and legal implications of the two. Almost all conversions come, of course, with the promise of benefits in the after-life. Converts to Christianity can, at the Last Judgment, join the flock of sheep on their way to the Pearly Gates rather than the herd of goats destined for the everlasting bonfire. Converts to Islam can look forward to the exotic allurements of Paradise rather than the fiery hell that awaits the infidel. Even converts to Hinduism can presumably expect to be reborn into a more exalted species or at least to enjoy a higher status than in this birth.

Unfortunately, in this age of disbelief, such deferred pleasures cut no ice except with those who are already true believers. Conversion today requires earthly benefits to supplement the heavenly ones - and it is about these present-day inducements that the current debate rages. Conversion by inducement, whether material or spiritual, contains no coercive component: it is a purely voluntary transaction and, like all voluntary transactions, a mutually beneficial one. The one who offers inducements has an excess of spare cash or other assets that he would gladly sacrifice for the salvation of poor benighted souls. The one who accepts them has material wants more urgent than his attachment to his earlier religious label. The transaction is not only mutually advantageous, but egalitarian as well. The rich, or at least those with surplus resources, donate to the poor - a redistribution devoutly to be wished. Indeed, most opponents of conversion or of ghar wapsi should instead celebrate when these processes are accomplished through material inducements. The Hindu fanatic should be delighted that the Church or the umma are dissipating their resources on buying the dubious loyalty of those who would not otherwise consider converting. The left liberal or the Christian or Muslim true believer should be ecstatic that the VHP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are wasting their substance in luring doubtful adherents into their fold.

Conversions - or ghar wapsis - by inducement represent a win-win situation for everyone, not just the participants but the observers as well. Far from being outlawed, they should be vigorously promoted. The poor, in particular, should be encouraged to convert and repeatedly reconvert for a consideration as long as they do not suffer a total loss of credibility. If they do, converters will cease offering inducements, conversion by inducement will die a natural death - and no tears will be shed for it. It will have fulfilled its social purpose before its timely demise.

The essence of this argument lies in the voluntary nature of the process of conversion and of the inducements being offered for it. As soon as the State jumps in with its apparatus of coercion, the argument collapses. Consider what happens if the State offers quotas or other special benefits to the adherents of a particular religion - as suggested, for instance, by the Sachar committee. These benefits will constitute incentives to members of other communities to convert to the favoured religion. They will represent a redistribution not voluntarily agreed to by the affected parties, but compulsorily imposed on other communities by the State through its instruments of taxation and subsidy. They will replicate the impact of the famous jizya. And they will differ crucially from caste-based benefits: one cannot change one's caste at will, but a change of religion to appropriate these benefits presents no problems at all. The courts, by ruling out quotas based on religion, have so far foiled such legislative efforts at facilitating conversion to particular religions. How long they will succeed in doing so is another question.

The author is professor emeritus, JNU