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Let's talk about poverty first before faith and conversions

Poverty should be debated much more vociferously, even within religions, than conversion, which is a symptom of deprivation, writes Faizan Mustafa.

comment Updated: Dec 25, 2014 04:34 IST
Faizan Mustafa
Faizan Mustafa
Hindustan Times

There will be no peace between or within nations without peace between and within religions. Recent incidents of mass conversion have revived the debate on conversions. Statements by the RSS and the VHP have added fuel to the fire and reportedly even Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unhappy with these provocative statements.

During debates in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government has promised to enact an anti-conversion law without realising that so far there have been no convictions under similar laws in various states. Moreover, the constitutionality of such a law is under question as experts feel that the Supreme Court’s judgment on conversion is not a sound pronouncement of law. Conversion is rarely the outcome of intellectual appeal alone. The people who converted in Agra recently confessed that the RSS assured them of providing better places to live, better food and schooling.

A few states have already enacted anti-conversion laws and there is a demand to make the rules more stringent. In an increasing number of cases, it has been alleged that the cultural minorities are converting the Indian majority to their own religions in order to seek recognition and protection of their distinctive identities, claim autonomy and self-governance. Historically, most conversions in India have taken place from the ranks of the economically poorest and socially defenceless Hindus to Islam and Christianity. Thus the Hindu majority saw converts as people who have betrayed the nation by dividing it against the higher Hindu castes, who had resisted what many of them have seen as ‘religio-cultural invasion’ by foreign conquerors. This is the context in which till recently converts, converters and the conversions were seen by the vast majority of Hindus. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the so-called ghar wapsi is mostly preached by organisations that pride themselves for their nationalism.

In the constituent assembly, rightist Hindu leaders suggested a ban on conversions but the proposal was rejected. These people considered the inclusion of words ‘profess, practise and propagate’ in the Constitution as a blunder. ‘Propagation’ means to transmit or spread one’s religion by the exposition of its tenets. It is interesting to note that the framers of our Constitution conferred the ‘right to propagate’ not only on Indian citizens but also on foreigners as the words used in Article 25 are ‘all persons’ and not ‘all citizens’. Where propagation ends and conversion begins is difficult to say, but the law as it stands today is quite clear that ‘propagation’ does not include ‘conversion’.

The extreme Right, among other groups, has argued that conversions from Hinduism have been coercive and ‘involuntary’ with the aim of being singularly subversive. The rhetoric of conversions by force, fraud, and inducement assumes that there are no material reasons why a person would want to remain or become a Hindu. As the converts mostly belonged to the lowest castes and converted to escape the oppression of the higher castes, the conversions further accentuated the demarcations between castes. Political affiliates of the higher caste Hindu parties, therefore, are the bitterest about converts and most aggressive in trying to reconvert their descendants and bring them back into the folds of caste Hinduism. They do not realise ‘reconversion’ is also conversion.

Dignity is a basic human right and if this is denied by one set of beliefs, the ‘victim’ will seek it elsewhere. While recognising that conversions are a complex issue, it is safe to say that as long poverty continues, so will the motivation for conversion.

Therefore, poverty should be debated much more vociferously, even within religions, than conversion, which is merely a symptom of poverty. We need a national debate on poverty, its various manifestations and nuances. We need to ask ourselves why laws banning bonded labour, rural indebtedness and abolition of untouchability have not been implemented in interior areas of our country. No missionary can be blamed for these problems. It is to be noted that Christian missionaries succeeded in areas where the government failed to provide good education and healthcare to the marginalised.

The Modi government favours the enactment of a national anti-conversion law on the basis of the apex court judgment of 1977 in Rev Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh, in which it was held that the MP Freedom of Religion Act, 1968 and Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1968 are valid and not ultra-vires to the Constitution, even though both these Acts were hindrances in the propagation of one’s religion. It was held that the ‘right to propagate’ does not mean the ‘right to convert’. Soli Sorabjee, former attorney general of India during the BJP rule, had favoured the need for the review of the above decision and suggested that the judgment deserves reconsideration. Justice Mathew of the Supreme Court also observed that all consideration applicable to freedom of speech and expression under Article19(1)(a) are applicable to the ‘right to propagate’. The right to propagate one’s idea is inherent in the concept of speech and expression. Two vital facts must be kept in mind about the above decision. First, it was given in an era when judicial activism was still in its infancy and secondly, today, since the apex court has given a very liberal interpretation to other fundamental rights such as right to life and equality, the highly restrictive meaning given to the word ‘propagation’ in 1977 is certainly not in tune with the emerging human right jurisprudence of the court. Freedom to convert should not be curtailed as it alone promotes ‘freedom of conscience’. We are forced to follow the religions of our parents. It is conversion which gives us ‘choice’. Rather than enacting a conversion law, the apex court should review its own decision, which is not only against the assurances given to Christians in the Constituent Assembly debates but also against international law.

Similarly, the denial of reservation benefit to lower caste Dalits on conversion is indeed nothing but an ‘inducement’ and ‘allurement’ to remain Hindu. The presidential order is clearly unconstitutional. It is necessary to remind ourselves about the India Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of. He said, “I do not expect the India of my dream to develop one religion, that is, to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side.”

(Faizan Mustafa is vice-chancellor, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research University of Law, Hyderabad. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Dec 24, 2014 22:20 IST