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Conversions and "conspiracies''
Opinion - The Hindu

Feb 5, 1999

By Pran Chopra

HIDEOUS things have happened in the chain of events leading up to and flowing
from religious conversions and reconversions among Hindus. That is bad enough.
But worse will follow if the lessons of these events remain unlearnt, and they will so
remain if thinking remains clouded by the current controversy, in which more is at
work than the lunacy of a few individuals.

On one side of this controversy are some Christian majority countries of the West,
and on the other is a bunch of Hindu zealots. The reactions of the former prove that
distance does not always lend perspective to perceptions, the latter have shown
they are blind to the long-term consequences of their shortsighted actions. Neither
side has given the credit due to the moderation which marks the bulk of Indian
society; and to the framers of the Constitution and laws which have ensured that
what happened in Dangs (Gujarat) or more recently in Orissa is to be noted more
for its infrequency than otherwise, given the historical Indian realities. But the
frequency will increase if the lessons left us by the history of conversions, and now
burnt afresh into our conscience, are ignored by those on either side of the

Historically, most conversions to Islam and Christianity took place under the
shadow of the power of Muslim and Christian conquerors of India, and mostly
from the ranks of the economically poorest and socially most defenceless Hindus.
This is the context in which the converts, the conversions and the converters were
seen by the vast majority of Hindus, who had remained faithful to their religion
despite defeat in battle. They saw the converts as people who had betrayed the
nation by going over to the side of the conqueror, and they saw conversions as the
converter's device, oiled through coercion and lure, for subverting Hindu society by
dividing it against the higher Hindu castes, which had resisted what many Hindus
saw as a religio- cultural invasion by foreign conquerors. Therefore, it is not a
coincidence that the conversions were condemned most, and reconversion to
Hinduism was mostly preached, by organisations which prided themselves on their

Nor is it surprising that the hurt Hindu pride and offended orthodoxy could so
quickly build up the fire which burnt in Ayodhya at the start of this decade. They
invoked the powerful imagery that a Muslim invader destroyed a historic Hindu
temple and built a mosque at the spot as the mark of the conqueror's boot on the
chest of Hindu sensitivities. Thus the case that the conversions were coercive and
their aim was subversive was argued out most virulently in the very ``heartland of
Hindu India'', by the storm troopers of the Shiv Sena, the most obstreperous of all
``Hindu'' organisations.

But even the voluntary conversions of Hindus brought social tensions in their wake.
As the converts were mostly poor, they came mostly from the lowest castes, as
they tried to escape the notorious oppression by the higher castes, which is the
darkest blot on the beliefs and practices of Hindu society. Thus, the conversions
further inflamed the demarcations of caste. This, too, explains why the political
affiliates of the higher caste Hindu parties are the bitterest about the original
converts and most aggressive in trying to reconvert the descendants.

Ethnic demarcations have also added fuel to the fires lit by the conversions. Areas
which are both remote and tribal acquire a sharpness of identity which divides them
deeper from the rest of the country and creates a tension between the two. To
quote Mr. James Massey, a Christian member of the Indian National Minorities
Commission, ``The majority worries about unity and the minorities about identity.''
Both worries are aggravated when conversions occur on a large scale in a remote
tribal minority, and more so when the area is rich in natural resources and yet
temptingly vulnerable to encroachment. Conversions then get added to ethnicity as
a suspected source of separatism today and secessionism tomorrow. This suspicion
is part of the gulf which divides much of northeastern India from the rest of the

The phenomenon has exploded in similar conditions in other countries too. Only a
few months ago, one met an American oil expert who is studying what international
politics might become when energy shortages begin to bite hard. He speculated that
in an Indonesia, enfeebled by strife and a failing economy, its oil rich areas might be
found willing to break away. His remark came back to my mind as I read about
Muslim mobs killing a number of tribals who had been converted to Christianity.
Would he be speculating now about the world's richest thorium deposits in the
sands of the half-Christian Kerala? Surely, he must have heard by now that on
India's 50th Republic Day the Archbishop of the densely-tribal Chotanagpur called
Hindus ``shameless'' and that the chief of the Shiv Sena prophesied a civil war
within the year (and, for good measure, in an on-going war between high caste
landlords and the low caste landless in Bihar, a landowners' army called the Ranbir
Sena massacred 19 persons in a single village).

Thus, the threads of conversion lead one to many fault lines in India's polity and
society; to the historical divides of castes, to the trauma of historical conquests and
their contemporary fallout, to the divide between the poor, rural, tribal people, and
the grabbing of their land and other resources by their richer, urban, non-tribal
neighbours, and, above all, they lead to the justifiably jealous concern for the
country's unity and independence. But in treading this complex minefield of
explosive issues, the makers of our laws and Constitution did a commendable job
of balancing the rights of religious freedom in a secular India, and protection of the
state and society from unjustified exploitation of the right.

They enshrined full freedom in the Constitution for everyone to practise, preach and
propagate his faith, including the right to invite and accept new converts to that
faith. But they also added the condition that conversions must remain free of
``inducement'', ``lurement'' and ``coercion''. They did not shackle these words in
tight definitions, so that the courts were given the latitude to decide whether the
terms applied in the circumstances of the given case. That, and the temper of those
times, which was moderate once the madness of the Partition riots had ended,
ensured that anyone who had a complaint to make against a conversion could take
it to court, instead of unleashing the kind of barbarity enacted in Orissa and the
vandalism practised in Gujarat.

But the temper of the present times has eroded moderation. Eminent leaders of
many parties have seen nothing wrong in creating a politico-religious market in
which bigotry and resentments and the currency and the wares are suspicions about
hidden agendas, even conspiracies. The secularism preached by the Congress(I)
and the Left is seen as the screen behind which they are trying to steal the ``Hindu
card'' of the BJP. Appeasement of Muslims is seen to have been the hidden agenda
of Rajiv Gandhi's decision to unlock the Babri Masjid. Mr. Advani's ``rath yatra'' is
seen as the Trojan Horse of the BJP's agenda for Hinduising the polity. Mrs. Sonia
Gandhi is suspected to be the ``foreign hand'' behind a stepped-up campaign of
conversions to Christianity. All these suspicions have a large enough grain of truth
to make them plausible in many eyes. Therefore, one should look more carefully at
the mother of all suspicions.

Mr. Kushabhau Thakre, BJP president, Mr. George Fernandes, Defence Minister
and leader of the Samata Party, and his party colleague and Railway Minister, Mr.
Nitish Kumar, have one thing in common: they have all blamed ``an international
conspiracy'' for all the recent crimes against the Christians. They suspect that the
hidden agenda behind the conspiracy, and behind the huge international outcry
against the tragedy in Orissa, is to defame and thereby to help bring down the BJP
Government because it carried out the nuclear tests; to paint India as too unstable
to be trusted with nuclear weapons; to bring all Christian countries together on the
many international fora they dominate, so that much harsher actions may be more
safely taken against India if it refuses to bend its nuclear knee. Some of these
countries still have some scruples about international norms and the rights of other
countries. But they can be silenced if the chorus of condemnation is loud enough.

These conspiracies cannot be proved but should not be ignored. Hindus who are
offended by any conversion they see to have been bought or coerced should not
play into the hands of the blind zealots who put the Staines to the torch; they should
go to court, because there are laws which clearly have the power of remedy. Public
outrage is fully justified, whether in India or abroad. But it should focus on the
barbarism and inhumanity of what has been done, not on the religious faith of those
to whom it has been done. Christian anger should decide what it wants to do; to
ensure the freedom and safety of legitimate Christian presence in India, or to please
the domestic constituencies in Christian countries, or to join in international power
games? These choices might not run on parallel courses.

On Dialogue
Wadhwa Commission
The evil in our midst
Truth Behind Forcible Conversions
Alternate accent
Bjp View
Without Conversion
Right to preach
Cast, not cash
NCM report
Towards Hindu Nation
Orissa Killing
Dhara Singh
RSS media on Christians
Index of Attacks

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .