Question of Faith
Anti-Conversion Legislation in Tamil Nadu

Ram Puniyani

[9 October 2002]

Tamil Nadu Govt. has passed a legislation banning the conversions by
force, fraud and allurement. Earlier Orissa Govt. had also passed a
legislation on similar lines and one bill by Anant Geete of Shiv Sena is
pending in the Parliament for discussion. This bill calls for a ban on
conversions and also equates free education as allurement! As per these
proposals a prior permission/intimation will be needed to be given to the
authorities who will sit on judgement whether the conversion is legal or
not. In a way most of these legislations violate the fundamental rights of
citizens, the right to personal freedom affecting profession, practice and
propagation of faith (article 25)

Just a month ago 150 Dalits in Kootharanbakkam village of Tamil Nadu had
converted. Similarly on Nov. 4, last years thousands of Dalits had
converted to Buddhism under the leadership of Udit Raj and this set the
trend for conversion in many places. As such in recent memory the
conversions in Meenkashipuram in 1980, where many a dalits had converted
to Islam was the major event which was projected as the invasion of petro
dollars for conversion to Islam in India. The issue was used to
consolidate the upper caste-class reaction against the social changes
especially related to the aspirations of Dalits. The same issue was raked
up again from 1997 when the anti Christian violence was orchestrated. It
was alleged that Christian missionaries are converting by force and
allurement. It was also alleged that these are being sponsored by the
foreign money courtesy the Pope. The major victim of this propaganda was
Pastor Graham Steward Stains who was burnt alive along with his two sons
when the trio was sleeping in the Jeep. During this period churches begun
to be attacked, Bibles were burnt and Christian priests were attacked. The
very suddenness and countrywide spread of the phenomena came as a bolt
from the blue.

The attacks were accompanied by the intercommunity divided on the ground
that new followers of Jesus are abandoning their old communitarian norms
and so the conflicts are coming up. The most surprising part of the
forcible conversion story was that this took place when the percentage of
Christian population is declining. The census data, and the data from
Justice Wadhava Commission of inquiry gave the truth of conversions away.
The All India Christian population in 1971 was-2.6%, in it was 1981-2.44%
and in 1991 it stood at 2.32%. This shows a marginal decline in the all
India population of Christians.

In Manoharpur in Keonjhar district Pastor Dr.Stains was doing his work
amongst the lepers. Justice Wadhava report gives an interesting
statistics. As per this report there is a rise of Hindu population by
2.52%, and that of Christian population by.008% between the years 1991 to
1998. These figures totally demolish the foundation of the argument that
massive forced conversions are on. The point to be noted is that the
conversions are projected to be a purely passive process in which the poor
Adivasis are converted by inducement and allurement. This again is a point
which gives the image that those converted are mere passive beings bereft
of intelligence just because they are poor and so susceptible to the
'anti-National' activities of the missionaries.

A slight peep in to history of conversions in India will make the matters
clear for us: whether conversions are active or a passive process? If we
recall a while ago the major component of anti-Muslim propaganda was that
Muslim Kings converted the Hindus by the sword, and this construct formed
the base of the anti Muslim sentiments in the social common sense. Before
we go into the historical process whereby Islam spread in India lets have
a look at the opinion of Swami Vivekanand on the issue (Collected works-
Vol. VIII, page 330). Says Swamiji Why amongst the poor of India so many
are Mohhamedans? It is nonsense to say that they were converted by the
sword, it was to gain liberty from Jamindars (Feudal lords) and priests.
Islam, contrary to the popular belief came to India through the Arab
traders who used to visit the Malabar coast for trade, and it were the
Hindu Kings who built the initial Mosques to sustain the trade. Also there
are still communities in the coastal areas who practice mixed, Hindu and
Muslim, rituals.

The major spread of Islam in India took place through the Sufi saints
whose spiritual strength and attitude of being close to the people
attracted the lower castes to embrace Islam in the hope of escaping the
Brahminical oppression of which they were the victims. There is no doubt
that some conversions also took place out of fear of the invading Muslim
Kings and also out of the anticipation of reward from the Muslim Kings,
but surely this number is inconsequential. Similarly even today there are
some insignificant boisterous Christian groups who blow their trumpet and
propagate in an aggressive way. Again their impact is insignificant.
It is interesting that Sikhism, which drew heavily from Islam as well as
Hinduism, attracted more of low caste untouchables in big number. Many of
them converted to Sikhism in the early part of twentieth century despite
stiff opposition from the Arya Samaj and other elite Hindu streams. The
case of Ambedkar and his followers embracing Buddhism needs a bit of
recounting. Dr. Ambedkar tried his best to have a place in the Hindu
social order. In this direction he led the Chavdar Talav movement, to
have access to public drinking water, he led the Kalaram temple agitation,
to gain entry to Hindu temples. The violent reaction of the upper caste
Hindus to these agitations made him to say that that though I was born a
Hindu I will not die as a Hindu. Further he went on to burn Manusmriti and
later decided to convert to Buddhism.

Dr. Ambedkars trajectory is the classical example of low caste Hindus
adopting a different religion by choice. And this is what has been the
phenomenon all through-attempts by the low castes to escape the
Brahminical Social Order by embracing different religions. Be those the
religions of Indian origin or be they of foreign origin, what is important
is that, the oppressed have been active partners in the process and not
the mere objects for the conversions.

Using this as a tool for communal politics is a favorite weapon all
through. As such Hinduism is based on caste system and Brahminism has been
its dominant factor. It is not a religion based on the teaching of any
prophet, and there by spreading, preaching it to others is not the norm.
Earlier Brahmin groups, being the elite, insisted more on exclusion of
others rather than on proselytisation. As such the Dalits, belonging
presumably to the same religion were untouchables and had to live in the
ghettoes outside the village. Other Indian religions, which based on
teachings of prophets (Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism), did believe in
propagating and thats how Buddhism in particular spread far and wide, to
other countries.

Hindu and Muslim political forces in early part of 20th century did
undertake conversions (shuddhi to Hinduism and tanzim and tabligh to
Islam). The shuddhi was more to attract those low castes that had adopted
Islam or Sikhism as their religion. The current Gharvapasi campaign of VHP
draws its legitimacy from the assertion that Adivasis are Hindus. If ones
belief systems, deities, holy books, and communitarian determine religion
functions than in which way the are the Adivasis Hindu? They many a times
have been beef eaters, are unaware of Ram and other deities of Hindu
religion, are oblivious to the Hindu holy books i.e. Gita, Ramayan, Maha
Bharat, and Vedas, and are practicing the animism in their own way. As
per the obligatory criterion of Religion they cannot be called as Hindus.
But they are being labeled as Hindus as a part of the phenomenon of
political will and for the necessities of Hindutva (not Hinduism, and they
are different categories) onslaught, which is trying to match Islamic
fundamentalism in its pernicious methods. Gharvapasi is a proselytisation
in a cleverer garb. The adivasis are being baptized in newer ways (Holy
baths, washing their feet with sacred water etc.) and this being backed up
with teaching them the Hindu ways, i.e. making them aware of the Hindu
deities, Hindu holy books Hindu festivals etc. Today, despite the claims
to the contrary many a Hindutva outfits are indulging in proselytization.

The spread of Hinduism is always a problem. Politically Hindutva needs to
assert that all those except Muslims and Christians, are Hindus. Here, the
criterion applied is the Nationalism of Religions. One is doubtful if
Religions can be tied to any Nation. Buddhism, which originated in India
is the religion of majority of people in Thailand, Sri Lanka.
Christianity, originated in Jerusalem but today it is major religion of US
Europe etc. While in Gharvapasi campaign the new caste of Adivasis remains
a vague issue. What is remarkable is not that conversions as a marginal
phenomenon have been a part of Indian reality from ages but the fact that
political phenomenon of intolerance has made it a political issue today.

(Writer works for EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity Mumbai)

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