Free India was born in a tumult of religious hatred. This, and the fact that this country is home to followers of almost every major religion, persuaded members of the Constituent Assembly to exercise great care to protect the freedom of religious belief in the Constitution. It decided that this freedom should be not just to practise and profess one’s faith, but also to propagate it. KM Munshi declared that “under freedom of speech, which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith”.
However, Hindu nationalist organisations were never reconciled to this fundamental guarantee of the Constitution. Their resistance derives from a larger running narrative of the Hindu majority being persecuted in their own country, enduring incursions by its minorities. The alleged threats they list from Muslim minorities are many: Violence and persecution, support for terror, reproductive excesses and sexual marauding. Against the Christians, the single threat they speak of is conversions.
After the gruesome burning alive of a Christian missionary and his sons in Odisha in 1999, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a national debate on conversions. The same discourse has surfaced with greater stridency after the ascendancy of the new government in New Delhi.
The premise of the campaign to reconvert those who left Hinduism for Christianity and Islam — described as ghar wapsi — is that the Hindu faith is home and conversions to ‘foreign’ religions betrayals. I recall when Gandhi was asked if he agreed that only Indian faiths should have a place in India, he replied affirmatively. Indian faiths, he explained, such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In tribal regions in particular, propaganda has long been mounted against the ‘menace’ of Christian conversions. But the facts don’t bear out the claims of mass conversions. Christians constituted 2.5% of India’s population in 1981, and 2.3% in 1991, 2001 and 2011. But when have hate propagandists been deterred by incompatible truths? This sustained misinformation has resulted in profound and sometimes violent schisms between Christian and other tribal people, and rich electoral harvests for the BJP.
Their contention is that Hinduism is denied a level playing field for conversions because enormous overseas funds support the work of Christian missionaries. But the truth is that there is no shortage of Indian diaspora funding for the work of Hindu nationalists in tribal India.
A massive network of tribal educational institutions of the RSS family has grown in central India, and the penetration of the Northeast is accelerating. The real problem is that few can match the selfless quality of educational and health services Christian missionaries offer, even to the most despised and excluded like leprosy patients.
The even greater problem is the religiously sanctioned inequality of caste inherent to the Hindu faith, which renders egalitarian faiths like Islam, Christianity and
Buddhism attractive to those enduring caste violence and discrimination at the lowest rungs of the Hindu social hierarchy. TT Krishnamachari, Constituent Assembly member, remarked presciently that conversion “depends on the way certain religionists and certain communities treat their less fortunate brethren”.
The large majority of converts to egalitarian faiths are, not surprisingly, from the lowest Hindu castes, stirred by hopes of greater social dignity and opportunities to study and escape socially humiliating caste livelihoods. It is their ongoing collective tragedy that even Islam and Christianity in India have absorbed ideas of caste, therefore their journey to social equality continues to be hamstrung by old walls of caste.
But the barriers remain the highest in traditional Hinduism. A story is told of the Shankaracharya of Puri, who was presiding over a reconversion programme, being asked by a journalist, “Now that you have welcomed them back into the Hindu faith, I am sure you will welcome them into your temples?” The Shankaracharya clarified that they would be allowed only to enter separate temples, and marry within their caste or tribe.
The anxieties that the Hindu fold will lose its lower castes and the tribes to Christianity and Islam led some state legislatures to pass laws to regulate religious conversions — they are Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. With the BJP having a majority in the Lok Sabha, the clamour is rising for a national anti-conversion law.
These laws criminalise religious conversions by what is described as force, inducement or fraud. The peril is that these terms could be expansively interpreted. Force could include the threat of divine retribution, fraud the promise of rewards in an after-life, and inducement free services in school or hospital.
Criminalising religious faith carries grave dangers both for religious freedoms and minorities, especially in an aggressively majoritarian climate such as the one that has risen today. It can browbeat minorities into fear and submission in the way blasphemy laws have done in Pakistan.
The other danger is the cynical manipulation of very poor people by communal formations, such as the Bengali Muslims in Agra being asked to choose between deportation and ration cards (which are proxies of citizenship certification), and the inducement in Kerala to access job reservations, which are barred to Christian and Muslim Dalits.
In this divisive competition for the religious allegiance of India’s poorest and most vulnerable people, marked by stridency and hate, it is important to recall the gentle counsel of one of the world’s tallest public figures, the Dalai Lama. “It does not matter which God you worship,” he declares, “or even if you worship no God. What is important is to be a compassionate human being”.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal