Law, Order & Religious Conversions

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Sep 25 2003, 05:30am hrs
The recent court judgement in the Staines murder trial has brought welcome relief to most people and a closure of sorts to a sordid and brutal event that shocked the nation, but the ongoing battle over religious rights in India is by no means settled. And even though pro-Hindutva forces have wallowed in their antipathy towards Christian clerics in recent years, the fact is that the controversy over religious conversion is a wider and intense global issue, a debate that predates the Sangh Parivar.

The genesis of the problem between Hindus and Christians perhaps lies in Indias colonial history. Towards the turn of the 19th century, British rule in India had already become a contest between two elite rather than an armed clash between the oppressor and the oppressed. In fact, the independence movement was closely tied to the Hindu social reform movement and was waged more through symbolic means than anything else. Songs and odes on Indias ancient glory were composed, foreign products were boycotted, English education was seen as a ploy to separate Indians from their social institutions and many Hindu political leaders, who were normally at ease with western clothes, reverted back to local dress. Many things associated with British values came to be shunned or viewed with suspicion, including Christianity.

At independence, conversion was already a burning issue. During the drafting of the constitution, many leaders, including a respectable array of liberals who were otherwise opposed to RSS ideology, supported restrictions on conversions or at least spoke in moral terms against it. These included not just the Mahatma himself, but also Vinobha Bhave, KN Katju and Rajaji. In subsequent years, Hindu-Christian armed clashes occurred regularly in both Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, both Congress-ruled states at the time, and in 1954, a committee set up by the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh accused Christian missionaries of creating a state within a state and observed that the philanthropic activities of Christian missionaries are a mask for proselytization. These events were local and overshadowed by Hindu-Muslim animosity in the aftermath of partition, and consequently went largely unnoticed by national and foreign observers, but public sentiment was genuine and strong enough at the time to force both states to pass a law regulating conversions.

Going beyond India, evangelical activity in many countries, even if innocuously conducted under the most humane garb, has evoked strident reaction from locals. In the past two years, a major public and intellectual debate has raged in both America and Canada regarding the targeting of Jews by evangelical groups. This past summer, a major controversy erupted when the Samaritans Purse, a major US Christian relief agency run by the son of Billy Graham, disclosed its plans to enter Iraq with aid. Not just the leadership of the Islamic community in America but also a large number of liberal writers denounced the agency for what one commentator called its barely-concealed attempt to spread the Bible via band-aids and beans.

Just last week, after thousands protested in the streets against the dilution of the importance of Orthodox traditions in the country, the government in Georgia scrapped an accord with the Vatican that would have obliged the country to guarantee Catholics the freedom to perform rites, open schools and study church history. And in neighbouring Russia, the Orthodox Church has openly accused the Vatican of stealing members of its flock and has effectively blocked the pope from visiting the country for many years.

None of these facts justifies acts of violence or intimidation against any church or any religion in India, or to deny them equal rights. In fact, what we need in India is to come down brutally, publicly and quickly against those who threaten the property, life and even lifestyle of anybody else. But what these instances do show is that religious conversion is not simply a legalistic issue or one created by the RSS, as is made out by many spokespeople of various church groups or writers in the national press. It is also, very crucially so, one of social harmony, especially in the context of our unique sociological and historical factors, not all which become false or fake just because the wrong guy spouts them or cynically manipulates.

Meanwhile, the biggest legalistic issue in any liberal country, whatever its version of secularism, ought to be the paramountcy of law and order. This is precisely what has been upheld by the recent judgement.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors