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Missionary position

india Updated: Oct 12, 2008 12:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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Every single Hindu I know has been deeply disturbed and more than a little ashamed by the recent violence against Christians. As it is, we are still to recover from the grief we felt when Graham Staines and his children were burned to death and our subsequent humiliation when the loonies of the Bajrang Dal glorified his killer and exulted in the bloodshed.

At a time when the world is looking at India as a potential 21st century superpower, such barbarism is deeply embarrassing. It reminds us that beneath our gleaming high-tech, IIT-engineered façade, there lurk medieval forces, full of hatred and bloodlust.

Worse still, it shames all Hindus. Many of us want to say to the world: look, this is an aberration; these people are crazy; Hinduism is not like this; it is not only one of the world’s oldest religions, it is also based on an ancient tradition of non-violence, liberalism and tolerance.

So far, so good.

But probe deeper and you finally come across the problem. Most Hindus recognise that India is a secular country and are happy for it to remain that way. We do not dispute that without a tradition of religious freedom and equality, we would be no better than Pakistan.

What we are ambivalent about, however, are conversions. Many Hindus — even tolerant ones who consider themselves entirely secular — feel that foreigners are abusing India’s religious freedoms. Way back in the early 1980s, when poor Hindus in the South converted to Islam in a blaze of publicity, alarm bells went off all over India. The conversions, we concluded, were prompted by the lure of Gulf money. And shortly afterwards, the government of India began to look closely at the flow of funds from the Middle East.

With Christian missionaries, the suspicion dates back even further. In the 1950s, New Delhi identified the Rev. Michael Scott as the prime instigator of the Naga rebellion. We took the line that Christian missionaries had played a pernicious role in the North East, using Christianity to drive a wedge between the tribes of that region and the Indian mainstream.

Even today, educated Hindus can be leery about the work of Christian missionaries. Why do they need to convert people, we ask. If they are so interested in helping the poor, then why don’t they do it out of the goodness of their hearts? Why is it necessary to also insist that they convert to Christianity?

Others ask why it is that missionaries tend to work with the poor, the dispossessed and those at the margins of our society. Is it because there are the people who need the most help? Or is it because it is much easier to convert poor people who will accept any God in return for two square meals a day?

Push many Hindus to the wall and they will not dismiss, out of hand, the idea that conversions should be banned. Is it really necessary, they will ask, for us to sit back and watch helplessly while foreigners use wealth from overseas to lure people away from Hinduism? Surely, we can put a stop to this!

Well, yes and no.

I do not have much time for people who run down other people’s faiths and then try convert them to theirs. And I agree that if you really want to help somebody in the name of God, you should be able to do it without simultaneously tying to get him to accept your religion.

But here’s the thing: ban conversions and you destroy the idea of India.

At the root of our notion of who we are as a nation is that we are a secular, liberal democracy. This means not only that religion and politics will be kept separate but that we will afford complete freedom of belief in both areas.

Thus, political liberalism means that every Indian has a freedom of choice when it comes to his or her beliefs. You can be an extreme Marxist or a dedicated Hindutva believer and still function within the Indian political system. What’s more, you can change your mind at any time. I may have been a Trotskyite in my youth but could decide on reflection that Hindu fascism seems much more attractive. In our liberal democracy, it is entirely appropriate for me to change my mind, even this involves a 180 about turn.

How can you have freedom of choice if you don’t know what the options are? Clearly, you can’t. And so, not only do we allow books and texts outlining various points of view to be freely circulated, we also encourage those with different views to freely propagate them. If I am a BJP voter, I cannot complain if the Congress candidate tries to get me to change my mind and vote for him or even to join his party. That’s the whole point of liberal democracy: we have the right to change people’s minds.

Now, extend the analogy to religion, the other separate but equally important part of our secular liberal democracy. The difference between India and say, some repressive Middle Eastern country, is that we extend the same freedoms granted in the political sphere to religion. I can be an atheist or a fundamentalist Muslim and still be fully Indian. What’s more I can change my mind. I can suddenly find God if I am an atheist. I can renounce God. Or I can choose a another god. Unless I have the right to change my mind, my secular freedom is meaningless.

And how do I know whether to change my mind? In almost exactly the same way as I know which party to support. I must have complete access to information and yes, people from every religion (and rationalists and atheists even) must have the right to lobby me on their own behalf.

In both politics and religion, take away the right to be lobbied, to be persuaded and yes, to be converted, and you destroy the whole notion of secular, liberal democracy.

And on balance, this is good thing. Take Hinduism. All of India was not always Hindu. Many Indians worshipped animist faiths before Hinduism came along. At some stage, ancient people must have stopped listening to their old priests and accepted the virtues of Hinduism. And somebody must have propagated those virtues. Similarly, Buddhism swept India for several centuries till Hinduism made a comeback and reconverted the Buddhists. Who did the conversions? Hindu missionaries, obviously.

Our problem is that all this happened several centuries ago. For over a thousand years, Hinduism has not actively converted people. And so, we regard conversions as something that only other people do. But if no religion had ever converted people all around the world, then all us would still be worshipping trees and tigers.

I’m no great believer in organised religion and perhaps as a consequence, I have very little time for evangelists, preachers and missionaries from any faith. But despite my disdain for those who seek to convert, I do not find them threatening.

And that eventually, is the question we need to ask ourselves. Yes, the missionaries may well be preying on poor people but do they represent any threat to India?

If they do, then we can intervene — as we did in Nagaland in the 1950s. But it is hard to argue that today’s India is threatened by the actions of few overzealous Christian missionaries.

It’s harder still to argue that Hinduism, which survived centuries of Buddhist influence, Muslim rule and the British empire, faces any significant threat from the activities of missionaries in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka.

Why then is there violence against Christians?

Well, why did the Nazis massacre the jews? Why do jihadis want to kill infidels? Why is there so much racism in the world?

The truth is there will always be people who hate those who are different, whether they are Nazis, jihadis or Bajrag Dalis. That is the way of the world.

The danger is when they pick on some mild disdain that we feel and fool us into believing that their motivation is the same as ours. In fact, they are no more than murderers and maniacs.

And it is them we should be acting against, nor tearing up our liberal society to ban conversions.