Conversions: Bearing false witness

At least one biblical injunction – thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour – has been so badly mauled in Gujarat that one cannot but feel the urgency for a mature debate on conversions, as suggested by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Thankfully, church leaders have not refused to discuss this increasingly sensitive issue. However, the haste with which left and secular politicians and intellectuals have sought to rubbish the call is distressing. Discerning citizens would have noted their concerted attacks on the BJP-led government, and the nonchalance with which they overlook sustained provocation of helpless tribals.

Thus, even as a visiting dignitary counsels viewing the incidents in the context of the “real size and volume of India,” our Cassandras yearn for heavy-handed international pressure, merely to embarrass the leadership. Clearly, there is more to the issue than meets the eye, and if we are to serve Truth, we must pierce the smokescreen thrown by the national press over the actual incidents.

Two highly respected Gandhian leaders, Ghelubhai Nayak and Chunnibhai Vaidya, whose demand for a legal ban on conversions triggered off the Prime Minister’s call to debate the issue, have testified that the incidents are a “reaction to conversion” (The Hindu, 6 January 1999). They claim that the immediate provocation for the December violence was an alleged attempt by missionaries to force a nephew of the Bhils’ ex-Raja to marry a Christian girl, in an attempt to convert him. The man was allegedly publicly beaten up on his refusal, and Nayak is a signatory to the police report filed thereafter.

The veteran Gandhians reveal that while the VHP and its affiliates have no worthwhile presence in Dangs, the church has imported as many as five hundred missionaries in recent years to speed up conversions. They charge that “during the last five years, nearly two dozen idols of Lord Shiva and Hanuman, revered by all tribals, have been desecrated or broken. The ancient beliefs of the tribals have been mocked at openly and every effort has been done to browbeat and harass them into submission.” Tribal resentment, they say, has long been simmering, and merely came to a boil on December 25 when Christians began stoning a Hindu Jagran Manch rally.

Nayak and Vaidya accuse the missionaries of using “unethical means,” and cite the case of a missionary who infiltrated Sabarmati Ashram carrying a book “Gandhiji’s favourite bhajans,” which was found to contain only Christian Psalms, and not a single Gandhian reference. In fact, the two Gandhians themselves rebuffed conversion overtures, after which the missionaries tried to forcibly evict them from their office in the Missionpada area of Ahwa. Blaming “vote bank politics” for the situation, they recalled Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to conversions, and pointed out that Vinoba Bhave held that a legal ban on conversion would not adversely affect secularism. It is notable that in the wake of Dangs, the Dalai Lama has also opposed conversions.

A number of issues arise out of this lengthy expose. First, despite cries of “we poor lambs are victims of majority communalism,” the minority community has been the consistent aggressor against the tribal way of life. Second, the aggression includes physical assault on their gods. Indian intellectuals who shamelessly project Hindus as perpetrators of atrocities on ‘peace-loving’ Christians should take an honest look at the ground reality in the district.

A scrutiny of the concerted response to the Gujarat events is equally enlightening. The nation-wide chorus of condemnation against the VHP, despite contradictory reports by the local press, was a shade too organised. The Congress conducted the orchestra skilfully, playing up Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Dangs by alluding to her alleged reluctance to identify with “her community.” She then went on to meet members of ‘one community,’ though it is possible that the others are to be blamed for not coming to see her. There followed unsourced reports of American interest in ‘violation of religious freedom’ in India. And, of course, it is no accident that Congress tried to link Gujarat with Babri, for only a successful clubbing of minorities can give it the solid communal votebank it needs to ensure its political future.

Finally, CWC members demanded referring conversions to the Supreme Court, while Sonia Gandhi, attending a Ramakrishna Mission function, propounded that “India remained secular because Hinduism, both as a religion and a way of life, respected other religions and people. Truth is one, the wise pursue it variously.” Surely Sonia Gandhi realises that people need freedom to pursue the truth variously; that attempts at conversion deny this basic freedom; and proselytisation, however subtle or coarse (as in Dangs) is ultimately an assault on the integrity and dignity of other faiths.

Some other points merit attention. Woven through the statements of church leaders speaking against the unrest in Dangs is one powerful refrain – that the threat to Hindu society is not from the minuscule Christian community, but from the social taboos and hierarchies which oppress the lower classes. Father Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Delhi, alleges that the attacks are the “handiwork of high caste Hindus who were afraid that the Church’s work among the poor would erode their status.” Such statements betray a deep hatred of Hindu society, and a determination to proselytise at any cost. Clearly, despite talk of ‘seeking a new understanding with the cultures of Asia and Africa,’ the church actually lacks respect for other faiths and ways of life.

It also needs to be emphasised that despite its tall claims, the church has in reality done little or nothing to elevate the status of tribals and other ‘oppressed’ sections of Hindu society. Emmanuel says missionaries make people aware of their dignity and encourage them to demand equality. But the existence of separate churches for Dalits in Kerala makes a mockery of these claims. The Church-led demand for reservation benefits for the church-created category of ‘Dalit Christians’ further proves the hollowness of these assertions.

Another mischief in the current affair is the deliberate projection of conversion as the conscious choice of individuals who fully understand and accept the tenets of the proposed new faith. The truth, however, is that such conversions are slow, rare, and dicey, as prospective converts often slip away, as was the case with Raja Rammohan Roy, who turned around and fathered the Indian renaissance, to the disappointment of William Carey. The church therefore, only propounds platitudes while using questionable means such as those outlined above to induce whole groups and communities to convert.

One final point may be made. A number of writers have alluded to the rise of sects in Hinduism and their activities to win adherents (converts), and demanded that minorities be accorded the same freedom. To begin with, sects do not have the same meaning and connotation in the different traditions. In the sannatan dharma, a new sect reinterprets and renews the tradition as a whole, and is neither a split nor a challenge; it is in fact intrinsically enriching. In Christianity and Islam, however, a sect implies a schism, a deviation from the single ‘truth’ as perceived by opposing orthodoxies. In such a mindset, sectarianism is viewed with horror, as cardinal sin or heresy. This fundamental difference of idiom needs to be appreciated if there is to be honest debate in the country, something that is becoming increasingly difficult in an atmosphere vitiated by our intellectuals.

19 January 1999, The Pioneer

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