The Riddles of Religious Conversion in India
The Article 25 of the Constitution of India guarantees the ‘freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion’, ‘subject to public order, morality and health and all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’. While freedom of conscience and free profession and practice’ of one’s religion has remained non-controversial; it is the ‘freedom to propagate’ one’s religion, that has been a subject of controversy, because the line separating conversion through conscience and conversion through ‘force, allurement or fraud’ gets easily blurred. The question is why the issue of conversion has suddenly become tricky whereas not only domestic but even a foreign dignitary (the US President) was forced to speak out about it.
I try to understand the complexities inherent in this phenomena and why it won’t be easy to resolve it.
The conversion from Hindus/ tribes/ scheduled castes (while Hindu groups say that these groups are Hindus; others say that tribes and scheduled castes cannot be categorised as Hindus) to non-Hindus is going on, as Christianity and Islam allows people from other faith to become part of their religion. However in post-Independence India there is difference between conversion to Islam and Christianity. While conversion to Islam has been local phenomena whereas certain low caste Hindus convert to Islam due to ‘bad’ treatment, marriage or just due to sheer belief; the Christianity has a well-organised institutional structure to convert people into their fold. In the process the economic aid, service to humanity and conversion to Christianity get mixed up.
The Hinduism has a different story altogether, since one can become Hindu only by birth. Though ‘the Hindu method of absorption’, whereas indigenous and tribal groups have become part of the Hindu fold, has been going on from centuries; it is not organized one and the process is so slow that it takes three to four generation to be accepted into the Hindu fold.
What is the implications of this dichotomy between a legal (constitutional) order that allows people to propagate their religion, and a social order, whereas while the Hindus cannot convert others to their religion, but Christian and Muslims can do the same?
While there are many reasons why the Hindu groups find themselves in disadvantageous position due to this dichotomous relation between the legal and social order; one of the immediate reasons seems to be the place of population in democracy. The minority community still does not support the BJP which is the preferred party of a section of fundamentalist Hindus. These Hindu groups believe that the rising population of Christian and Muslim will be detrimental to their idea of India. So in order to increase their number, now certain Hindu organizations have started advocating that one can also become Hindu, like one becomes Christian or Muslim, through conversion. Though this is against the long tradition of Hinduism, it has found takers among the Hindus religious heads and other organizations. The dilemma has been resolved by stating that Hindu groups are not bringing anyone to Hindu fold, but just facilitating these people (Muslims and Christians) once again revert back to Hinduism. Their claim is that these people were Hindu and converted to other religion either due to fear (Islam) or favour (Christianity). The process of bringing these people into Hindu fold has become easier due to detachment of occupation from caste and floating urban population. Just imagine that if someone takes up a Hindu name after conversion he will get married among Hindus somewhere and no one is going to question him. The economic benefits that the Hindu SCs gets from the protective discrimination of the state policy has acted like an incentive to non-Hindus to adopt Hindu religion.
And here lies the predicament of the Christian missionaries and secular parties. The Muslims are not much affected by this process since they don’t have an organized institution to convert people (even if it exist it is not as strong as the Christianity) into their fold, and most of the conversion to Islam has taken place in distant past so Islamic ideology has become part of their conscience. Thus there is little chance for Muslims to convert to Hinduism. However the conversion to Christianity has been very recent one and there is very high level of probability that these groups would revert back to the Hindu fold. These newly converted Christians still have not been able to totally detach themselves from the previous faith.
The irony is that it is the Hindus groups that demand enactment of an anti-conversion law, and it is the Christians, who are at the receiving end, are vehemently opposed to any anti-conversion law. The reason is that the Christian organisations know that any anti-conversion law would stop the conversion of Hindus and other indigenous groups to Christianity. But the irony is that they don’t want the Hindu groups to indulge in the process of ‘re-conversion’ or ‘Ghar Wapsi. Earlier the dichotomy of legal and social order worked in the favour of Christians, but as the dichotomy is getting erased the Christians find themselves in disadvantageous position.
And that’s why the issue would remain very tricky for some time.