|| Who’s Afraid of Conversions? ||
Political commentators express concern only when some people convert to Hinduism, not when some convert from Hinduism to other faiths. These advocates of a one-way traffic are wary of a debate with those who disagree with them, the constitutionality of secularism and freedom of religion notwithstanding.
In the recent weeks,I had many well-meaning people come up to me to ask, “What is this ghar wapsi (homecoming) nonsense”? I have heard them out as they have passionately held forth on their anger against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their fears for secularism in India. At the end, I have asked only one question: “Are you opposed to conversions per se or is it only conversion to Hinduism that bothers you?” In each instance, without exception, the person has paused to think.
It turns out that in most cases, people had not really thought through their emotional, knee-jerk responses to the issue, and their reaction was mostly driven by the manufactured hysteria in the mainstream media. This response has highlighted the fact that it is time to address the elephant in the room and talk about conversions and secularism in India.
As most of you already know, the Preamble to the Constitution explicitly states that India is a secular nation. This in the Indian context has come to imply that the state and all its institutions are bound to respect pluralism and recognise all religions. More importantly, it is bound to treat all citizens as equal, regardless of their religion. In addition, Article 25 of the Constitution spells out the freedom of conscience, profession, practice and propagation of religion and states that “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”
There has been much debate on the nuances of this clause, including the right to convert. It resulted in the following Supreme Court ruling:
" … the freedom of religion enshrined in Article 25 is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only but covers all religions alike, which can be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following other religion. What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion."
As you can see, the Constitution and the Supreme Court are fairly clear on what secularism entails. The trouble starts with its interpretation and application on the ground. The issue of conversions, which I will focus on in this article, is just one of the many problematic areas. Let me illustrate the point with some recent examples.
In early December 2014, there was news of some Muslim families being converted to Hinduism under the aegis of the VHP through ghar wapsi. Subsequently, the group claimed to re-convert people of other faiths in different parts of India. The news made headlines and the VHP’s attitude led to much breast beating in certain circles. Then, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India criticised ‘forced’ conversions of Christians to Hinduism. There were hysterical posts alleging that right wing groups have been pushing “their fascistic idea of converting secular India into a theocratic Hindu Rashtra (nation)”. It was said that the move was against the concept of secularism. These views were peddled not only by a vocal lobby in India but also the likes of BBC and The New York Times. But does the reality match the spin doctoring?
Let us first look at the allegation of force. What was the kind of force used? Were the people threatened with beheadings, crucifixions or torture if they refused to convert? Were their women and children at risk of being sold in slave markets? Was their life, liberty or property in danger? As far as I know, none of these methods were used. It may be true that there were material inducements, but that is a free choice neo-converts made, based on their needs assessment. Surely, it takes basic common sense to differentiate between enticements and force. While on this point, let me state unequivocally that if there are cases of force by any religious groups, Hindu or non-Hindu, they need to be dealt with under the existing laws.
Next let us look at allegations of the move being anti-secular. Did you know that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, thousands of Hindus converted to Christianity under the guidance of Southern Baptists? More recently, on 25th December 2014, 200 Mahadalits converted to Christianity in Bihar. How many of you read this news? How many television channels ran it as a lead story?
- by Smita Barooah