Blind by one eye: A response to “How converters could be made to stop offering inducements”

June 14, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

[This article is a response to an article published in The telegraph, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150529/jsp/opinion/story_22625.jsp#.VXzi3kbCAzE , and was sent to the newspaper; but in their wisdom they decided not to publish it.]

Professor Ashok Sanjay Guha’s article “Conversion controversies- How converters could be made to stop offering inducements” in The Telegraph of 29th May 2015 is a classic case of very clearly seeing half the truth and being totally blind to the other half. He catches the deliberate one-eyed vision of left leaning liberals who see conversion to Christianity and Islam as an exercise of cherished freedom of belief; but conversion to Hinduism as bigotry. He also rightly points out that banning all conversion is denial of freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith. And then surprisingly the article builds an argument that is oblivious of the impact of religion on social and political life of the converter, the converted and the rest; and fails to take into account full scope of what freedom of choice means.

His argument in a nutshell is that conversion with allurements is a free economic transaction between the converter and the convert, both consenting adults; therefore, any third party including the state should have no say in it. This argument is flawed on many counts. But in a brief response like this I will show its un-tenability only on three counts.

Weak interpretation of the principle of liberty

First let’s look at a few examples. If one goes by Professor Guha’s argument the state and other citizens should have no say in the following cases: 1. Demanding dowry, 2. Polygamy among Hindus, 3. A dalit selling his land to a non-dalit or non-tribal person, and 4. Offering money to vote in favour of a candidate in elections.

All four can be construed as ‘free transitions’ between consenting adults with supposed to be mutual benefits. Then why are they all banned legally? Among others, one reason is a certain understanding or interpretation of the principle of liberty. Democracy is premised on the principle of individuals making their own choices according to their own light. A democratic state cannot rest assured just by declaring the freedom for its citizens to make their own decisions; it has to maintain a coercion free social and legal environment in which making of choices are facilitated without fear and pressure. In all the four examples above there is a possibility of coercing one party into acceptance of a decision s/he could not have made freely. When a poor father wants his child to be admitted in a supposed to be good school that charges fees beyond his economic capacity and confronts a choice of accepting the religion propagated by the school, then he is being coerced. Or when he cannot afford treatment of his ailing child in a supposed to be good hospital where free treatment is tied to bartering of faith he is not making a free choice. His decision to barter his faith is not a free decision, it is a decision under duress. This is the business of the state to protect weaker citizens from this kind of coercion of the stronger.

Abandoning civic concern for the other

When Professor Guha argues against raising the issue of conversing through allurement by ‘third party’ he is advising citizens to abandon civic concern for fellow citizens. Democracy functions on concern for the well-being of all citizens and of the whole society. When a concerned citizen sees conversion through allurement—economic coercion—s/he has a duty to speak against it. Failing in this duty is tantamount to failing in one’s duty as a citizen. Fraternity in the preamble of The Constitution of India demands concern for wellbeing of all citizens.

No society can maintain justice, liberty and equality if the citizens are concerned only about their own business and their own wellbeing. This is one of the biggest failures of Indian democracy and Professor Guha’s article advises to worsen the situation.

Socio-political impact of conversions

The article completely fails to take into account the socio-political impact of conversions. It is well known by now that conversion almost always destroys the social relationships including those within extended family. Social fabric and families are bound together by shared belief, patterns of life, rituals and other cultural activities. A change in faith demands abandoning many of them, often demands acting in a contrary manner. The argument here is not to sustain unjust social order and superstitious or otherwise subjugating practices; such practices can be challenged even without change of religion. Rather the argument is against the personal and psychological pain caused by distance that change of faith creates with the near and dears, and the community one has been living with. The proselytizing church knows and admits this, but juxtaposes it with the spurious joy found in submitting to Christ. Of course, one can say that this is a matter on which the individual should think, what right any third party has to be nosy about it? Which is Prof. Gha’s argment. But the matter goes further and becomes socio-political.

We all, including Professor Guha, know well enough that conversion today is mainly an economic and political power game. I think it has always been so in the history as well. The ‘sarva-dharma-samabhava’ version of secularism adopted by Indian state has exacerbated the competition and acrimony in this game as all religions under this mistaken brand of secularism have a chance of attempting to grab as much public space as possible; and to impose their dictates on others. For example, ban on beef eating in some states is a clear attempt to impose preferences of a small set of Hindus on others.

This competition results in vigorous efforts to gain convers or to slowdown depletion of one’s religious group. We should remember that religions are also political ideologies. In a democracy this game has a place; but also has to be played with all fairness. Allowing coercion—be that of political, economic or plain brute force—will create unrest, exacerbate hatred and promote violence. That will certainly result in intolerance and social disharmony. A democratic state is duty bound to create a level playing field for these forces; and therefore, has to provide a fair legal framework to operate within.

The only fair possibility

In a democracy, as Professor Guha rightly says, one’s free choice of faith cannot be restricted.  Therefore, conversion has to be accepted and allowed, as it is today. But it has to be allowed in a manner that is fair to all religious groups; therefore, Hindu groups have as much right to attempt and succeed in conversion as Christian and Muslim groups do. The left leaning liberals have rendered themselves irrelevant on this issue by taking a partisan position for decades, which is fully exposed now.

Forcible conversion has to be dealt with firmly, be that by any group. It is a crime and should be dealt as a crime. Cheating gullible people into conversion should also be a crime as cheating in any other case is. Economic coercion and bartering of faith for money, if proven beyond doubt, should be criminalised on moral as well as pragmatic grounds discussed above.

The so-called opinion makers and intellectuals should realise that there is no higher motive behind conversion, it is simply a dirty violent political game; and has been so throughout the history. They should spend their energies in exposing the moral depravity of zeal for conversion. And also the inherent bigotry and epistemic stupidity of the idea ‘my religion is the only true religion’. The Hindutva groups’ attempt to create a narrow proselytizing religion out of diversity encompassing Hinduism should be resisted by Hindus themselves as well as the opinion makers. Most of their proclamations of ‘re-conversion’ are either false propaganda to attract attention or plain coercion. It is a political game and is rightly criticised as such. But that can hardly justify closing eyes to economic coercion and cheating involved in conversion to other religions.


Rohingyas: atrocities in Myanmar

June 3, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

One of Manoj ji’s posts attracted my attention to the issue of Rohingyas in Myanmar. I do not have a ready intellectual courage to cry “atrocity” or “genocide” at the first glimpse at a headline. So spent about 4-5 hours in 2-3 days looking at newspaper reports, social media cites (including those of Myanmar Buddhists’) and a documentary made by New York Times. I don’t think I understand the issue properly, yet. But a first tentative understanding, without any claims of it being ‘the truth’ is as outlined below. As I claim no great authenticity for my understanding, so am not bothering to site the references. It is just a summary of tentative ideas at present, as I said above.

Genocide:

Genocide is understood as systematic elimination of all or a significant part of a religious, ethnic, racial, or even a political group. The ways of elimination could be killing, driving away, or many others kinds; but the aim is to ‘eliminate’ from a particular geographical area.

If one goes by the majority of news report, social media cites and the documentary it is an attempt to drive away the Rohingyas from Myanmar. There is a lot of killing, scaring, hatred, confinement, denial of facilities. And so on. Seems to be very atrocious and as reprehensible as can get.

The state, the Buddhist religious establishment and he public all three seem to be determined that there should be no Rohingyas in Rakhine state. And the atrocities are a tool to drive them away or kill them.

Why this hatred?

There is a tremendous amount of fear on both sides. Rohingyas being a minority and at the receiving end on most of the case are naturally scared. But the Buddhist religious leader and public also seems to be scared. This will sound odd to many that an overwhelming majority (95%) should be scared of a tiny minority. But in a tentative survey of news items and opinions it seems to be true.

Understanding the roots and causes of the hatred and fear seems to be much more complex than getting a reasonable picture of the state of affairs at present.

The history

The present Rakhine state it seems was Arakan earlier, an independent kingdom that was ruled by Bengali kings at times. Therefore, there was an ethnic Bengali population living there traditionally.

When British captured it along with the rest of then Barma, they encouraged Bengali population to settle there. The Rakhines resented this new population right from that time.

After the British left, Rohingyas themselves didn’t make it easy for their compatriots.

“The Rohingya insurgency in Western Burma is an armed conflict between the state of Burma and its Rohingya Muslim minority since 1947. Their initial ambition during Mujahideen movements (1947-1961) was to separate the Rohingya-populated Mayu frontier region of Arakan from western Burma and annex that region into newly formed neighbouring East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Rohingya groups were again active during the period of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Recently, during the Arakan State Riots, the aspiration of the Rohingya militant groups, according to various media reports, is to create northern part of Arakan an independent or autonomous state. In 2012, Rohingja émigrés in exile declared the creation of the “Islamic Republic of Rahmanland”, located in the north of Rakhine State.” Claims Wikipedia; this to me is not a very reliable source, but perhaps does not contain untruth on such an important matter. If that be true the Rohingyas loyalties lie more with Bangladesh and Islam then to Myanmar; they do not really want to remain citizens of Myanmar.

Such history obviously does not help create bonds of trust and gives credence to separatism fueled by religious zeal.

In the Myanmar favoring sites there are claims that the Myanmar government at one time gave citizenship to many Rohingyas but the influx from Bangladesh scared them and they revoked all such attempts. They claim that there is a sizable percentage of newly arrived Bangladeshis in the supposed to be Rohingya population. (The Myanmar people simply call them “Bengalis” and don’t even recognize separate Rohingya ethnicity!)

There is no evidence of independent news reports of sizable newly arrived Bangladeshis among the Rohingyas (what I mean is, I did not chance upon such evidence in my very short search). But in one of the boats of Rohingyas that landed in Indonesia there were 208 Bangladeshis out of 584 people. Indonesia and Malaysia both refused to admit the people coming by these boats because they fear an influx both from Myanmar and Bangladesh. This, however, does not prove that there are newly arrived Bangaladeshis in Rakhine state as well; as Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmay may have simply shared the facility provided by human traffickers with Bangladeshis fleeing from poverty. But this also does not allow to rule out the possibility completely. The affinity shown by Rohingyas to East Pakistan earlier and Bangladesh after its creation gives credence in the Rakhine people’s minds to the idea of influx from Bangladesh.

Rakhine people claim that there have been instances of rape and killing of Rakhine girls by Rohingyas. How far that is true is anybody’s guess, in absence of independent evidence.

Rakhine also think that the population of Rohingyas increasing very fast due to higher birth rate as well as influx from Bangladesh. I did not chance upon any independent corroboration of these claims.

If the Rakhine people believe all this then fear of overtaking them in terms of population may be justified at the least in their own minds. The situation in some border areas on India where Bangladeshis have become majority also gives grounds for such a fear.

The Rohingyas on the other hand have been always discriminated against by the successive regimes in Myanmar. Right from refusal to recognition their ethnicity, to lack of state support for their development, to denial of citizenship and confining them to concentration camps; are reason enough for them to be angry, distrustful and fearful of the public as well as the state.

There have been many instances of riots and Ronhingyas being minority has been at the receiving end. Both the communities at present seem to be totally distrustful and fearful of each other. On both sides religion has taken on the role of providing fuel for hatred for each other.

None of this, even if true, however, justify the denial of citizenship and encouraging genocide and ethnic cleansing on the part of the state. The issue of citizenship may be complicated due to difficulty of identification of genuine Rohingyas and new Bangladeshi entrants; but denial of citizenship to Rohingyas whose forefathers have been living in Myanmar (old Barma) cannot be justified. The situation is grave for Rohingyas, complex and toehold for rapprochement do not seem to be available at present.

It seems to me outside help will be required to force Myanmar state to recognize its own people. To help Rakhine to learn to be tolerant to the minority. And to the Rohingyas to abandon their hope of being part of a Muslim majority country and of establishing an Islamic state on Myanmar soil. All the three parties cannot accomplish this on their own. A healing process aided by concerned but neutral and impartial party is required.

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