[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.