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, , 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.

An attempt to understand Kaimri (Hisar) Church attack

March 22, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

“An under construction church in Kaimri village in Hisar district of Haryana was vandalized by miscreants and the idol of Hindu god Hanuman was placed inside the premises.”

First let’s accept certain basic principles:
• Any one in India has the right to practice and propagate one’s religion. And therefore, Subhash Chander and his Church have the right to construct a Church in Kaimri and preach their religion there. This is their constitutional right and cannot be challenged as long as we are a secular democracy.
• The accused (one of them, Anil Godara, is arrested) indulged in a hate crime in vandalizing the under construction church and placing a Hanuman idol there. As the right of Subhash Chander cannot be challenged the act of Anil Godara and Co. cannot be defended. It remains an antisocial, anti-democracy crime which should attract adequate punishment as per the law of the land.

Having stated the basic principles now let us try to understand the issue.

Historically Haryana had a very strong Arya Samaj movement. Arya Samaj was an attempt to consolidate Hindu society, work against caste (but in a limited sense), stop the conversion of Hindus to other religions and also to re-convert Hindus who had already converted to other religions. The Hindus are bad at conversion and reconversion games; they are too crude and unsophisticated. This might be because Hinduism was never a proselytizing religion; but that situation may not last long now. The Arya Samaj movement for re-conversion was called “shuddhi” implying that the converted became impure. The stench of casteism and purity in the name is for real. The current attempts at the re-conversion are called ‘Ghar-vapasi” but the “Ghar” still remains a fragmented oppressive structure; those who converted to escape casteist indignity are unlikely to re-inter such a stinking home.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajarang Dal and RSS all are active in Hisar district. They are building the on old Arya Samaj movement; their recent Ghar-vapasi is simply a new version of the old shuddhi. As I said above, since they are too poor in this game of conversion they resort to crude metaphors and methods. Stopping preaching of other religions through violence is an admission of inability to play this game through more subtle methods.

Whenever there is a news of some Hindus attacking a Christian establishment two things are generally assumed: 1. That there is a wide spread intolerance in Hindus; and 2. That the attack was on practicing religion and not on preaching it. (I would like to reiterate that preaching of one’s religion is no justification to attack it. Attack is morally heinous and from legal view a criminal act. But the distinction of being attacked simply due to practice and due to attempts to convert is important.)

There are repeated assertions from the intelligentsia and Christian religious leaders that there are no attempts to convert. This claim need to be questioned. Not to stop it but to be prepared (from law and order angle) to protect this effort and have a fair estimate of the volatility of the situation any attempts to convert creates in Indian society.

Kaimri is a village of about 1100 families in total, has about 5000 voters. Approximately 50% of the population are Jats, Brahmins, Baniyas etc.; majority in these 50% are Jats. There are about 100 families of other backward castes and about 400 families of Harijans. A friend told me that the scheduled castes (Harijans) in Haryana are divided in two groups: SC-A and SC-B. SC-B primarily consists of relatively more progressive sections in Harijans like jatavs (also called Chamars) in local language. SC-A are relatively more backward in education and economic status. SC-B are more inclined toward Buddhism due to Dalit movement. Usually in rural areas SC-A and SC-B go the divergent ways as the bifurcation happened because of a strong feeling that SC-B are grabbing all reservation opportunities.

The village Kaimri has no Christians at all. Subhash Chander came to Kaimri about 18 month beck after his training as priest was complete (this information is ascertained from a local person and am not absolutely certain about it).

The purpose of construction of the church in such a village does not seem to be practice of religion but preaching and conversion. The likely target population perhaps is SC-A, as the other castes are under the influence of VHP, BD and RSS; and SC-B are influenced by Dalit movement.

Let us remember that the ‘other’ in Rural Haryana is a layered concept. Based on caste, groups of castes and religion. To a Brahmin a ‘Baniya’ is the other; but a Jat is ‘more other’ and a Muslim is ‘even more other’. For a Jat the ahir is the ‘other’, but a Baniya is ‘more other’ and a Muslim is ‘even more other’. The distrust and acrimony rises with the otherness. In such a society any disturbance in the existing situation is likely to produce a reaction. In the majority of people this reaction will be simply a feeling of fear of unknown and vague loss of connectivity. But the situation becomes ripe for VHP etc. to be exploited and in some this vague feeling can be converted into a violent reaction. That is precisely what they want.

The preparations and preaching of Christianity among the SC-A particularly seems to be the immediate occasion of the vandalism. Obviously this would not happen without active involvement of VHP etc. The economic angle may have played a role; as the SCs are likely to be agricultural labour in that village and active conversion attempts may disturb that exploitative economic relationship. This seems to be the anatomy of Kaimri Church vandalism. There are many feeling and forced must be operating at the ground level.

So what could be done to prevent such incidents in the future?

It seems to me that we need to have a nationwide movement to emphasise the individuals’ freedom to choose one’s faith and life. At the moment the rights of the individual are part of the constitution but the social fabric is woven by the family, clan, caste and religion. The communitarians who want to emphasise community based identities and even rights of the communities should realise that this could be used in a negative manner.

The fact of Church attempts to convert should be recognised and the law and order machinery should be prepared to deal with the reaction it will generate. Those who argue that the Church is not into the conversion business should keep in mind Pope John Paul II’s declaration in India that the intention of the Church is to plant the cross in Asia in the new millennium and that the Church sees India as a field for a rich harvest. There is no reason to think that he made these pronouncements non-seriously. He was within his and Christians’ constitutional rights. And this right needs to be protected, even if one thinks it to be morally of dubious value.

But we should also remembers that an average Christian may not agree with the Pope; and may have no desire for converting others to his/her religion. Similarly an average Hindu may not see the activity of conversion as something to be retaliated violently. The media and opinion makers should capitalise on this majority tolerance.

The VHP, RSS and BD are creating a victim mentality in the Hindus. This should be somehow countered. One cannot counter it by denial of conversions but only by accepting the right to preach one’s religion peacefully.

While accepting the constitutional right to propagate one’s religion and convert; we should also realise that morally conversion is a violent act. It also involves gullibility and cheating into a false doctrine, as all religious doctrines are false. It is not an act of rational persuasion but one of motivating the ‘would be convert’ to abandon reason. It is a rationally and morally indefensible act. An interesting argument to this effect is advanced here If one discounts the author’s homilies for Hinduism and her devotion to dubious Hindu God women the letter makes good sense.

The above mentioned open letter to the Pope quotes Mark Twain: “Religion was born when the first con-man met the first fool”. Perhaps Mark Twain is a bit harsh; I would like to change it to “Religion was born when the first con-man met the first gullible person”. In this game of con-men to make fool of others those who call themselves intellectuals have a responsibility to protect the gullible.