Conversions Root Cause Of Kandhamal Riots
The Panigrahi Commission, the Odisha government had appointed to inquire into the religious violence that broke out seven years ago at Kandhamal, made three points in its voluminous report. First, the riots were a byproduct of conversion activity; second, conversions are illegal according to a law Odisha had passed and third, both the Hindus and the Christians were victims of the violence. Access to the full report may throw more light on the cause and consequence of the long history of evangelism in the country.
The incidents have as usual given birth to Gujarat-style private tribunals that in the name of justice sought vengeance and invited more retributive violence. It didn’t matter that the judiciary was seized of cases relating to the violence. Worse still, retired Supreme Court judges headed them.
One such private organization, The Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi, called the Kandhamal violence “genocide,” though the sum total of people who died in the riots was three! The list of these kangaroo courts is long but here is a sampling: The National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal headed by A.P.Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Indian People’s Tribunal on Communalism in Orissa headed by former Chief Justice K.K. Usha of the Kerala High Court. Independent Tribunal consisting of eminent jurists Justice Hospet Suresh, Justice Kolse Patil [both former High Court judges], Director General of Police [retired], Gujarat, R. B. Sreekumar and Human rights activist Ms Teesta Setalvad.
Nearly forty years ago, the Congress passed anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Arunachal Pradesh enacted it in 1978. Even before Independence, many princely states like Raigarh, Sarguja, Udaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kalahandi and Kota passed such laws. More recently, Tami Nadu also passed a law banning conversions. These laws have naturally upset the minorities’ organizations. The Global Council of Indian Christians demanded its immediate withdrawal and said it was in violation of Article 25 of the Constitution. Several opposition parties criticized the measure as a travesty of the spirit of the Constitution.
This view is very flawed. Freedom of religion is one of the rights conferred on the citizens by Article 25 of the Constitution that grants to citizens the right to freedom of religion and adds that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. The right to interpret these terms rests with the judiciary. The critics don’t seem to know that the exercise of these rights is limited by the demands of public order, morality and health concerns. Your right to freedom of religion does not include the license to build a temple in the middle of a public thoroughfare or to run down another religion.
Concerning the Tamil Nadu law, the media too endorsed the minority sentiment. The Hindu (October 8, 2002) editorial condemned Ms. Jayalalithaa’s action and asked ‘what really constitutes force or allurement?’ The answer to this question is as simple as the question itself. Several laws are full of terms like ‘reasonable.’ What is reason for one can be dogma for another. But there are courts in this country, which have been grappling with such expressions every day. The Hindu thought that the anti-conversion law was a ‘death knell even to genuine activity of ministering the poor, the sick and the illiterate.’ How? It does not explain. But isn’t the country teeming with hundreds of organizations that minister to the poor, the sick and the illiterate without converting their beneficiaries to any religion?
The Indian Express said, “On the face of it, the Jayalalithaa government’s new ordinance banning conversions through force or fraud is entirely unexceptionable.” It said the same thing as The Hindu did. “Force and fraud suddenly become grey areas mined with ambiguity.” In case of ambiguity, an aggrieved person can always approach any court from the court of first instance to the Supreme Court whose business it is to remove the grayness of texts in laws. The Hindustan Times did not think that the recent conversions of Dalits to Christianity in the Madurai area are enough justification to pass the law. Is anyone bothered that the Dalit is losing his identity?
The newly raised concerns of the minorities are artificial because not a single case had been booked under these laws either in Orissa or Madhya Pradesh for the last three and a half decades (Walter Fernandes, The Hindu, August 22, 2002). Further, in a democracy, an elected legislature has every right to pass a law by a majority vote. The Supreme Court had said that while adoption of a religion is freedom of conscience, conversion would impinge on the freedom of choice granted to all citizens alike.
It is naïve to believe that one of the greatest and oldest religions in the world would not resent continual assaults on its solidity. If conversion is legitimate, how is resistance to it illegitimate? The much talked about Article about freedom of religion clearly says that such exercise should not disturb public order. Read what Sultan Shahin, well-known columnist (The Times of India, February 11, 1999) says, “It is rather disingenuous to suggest that conversions do not matter to them (the Hindus)”
Read what Mahtma Gandhi had said about conversions: “There is nothing but vilification of Hinduism in the books distributed by the missionaries. The missionaries are vendors of goods who target the most susceptible when they are most vulnerable, using not just dialogue but allurement and violence. If I had the power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytizing.” Gandhiji’s letters also mentioned the forcible conversion of Hindus by rebellious Mappilas of Malabar in 1921.What the legislatures of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and now Tamil Nadu did was follow the lead of Mahatma Gandhi.
Digging further, the Neogy committee appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru not only recommended a law against conversions but also pointed out how the minorities were behind a movement to fight for secession from India. The terrorist activity in the northeast was a continuation of that movement Neogy committee had referred to in its report. The Neogy logic is not farfetched. History has provided us the example of American missionaries first converting the indigenous people in East Timor and then successfully inciting them to fight for secession from Indonesia.
Conversions are at the root of communal strife. If you want to increase your flock at the expense of other communities the latter are bound to react, especially when law and precedent are on their side. The Constitution grants freedom of religion though, the State, the Supreme Court interpret the limits of this right differently. Suppose the Christians and the Muslims target the same group for conversion. It ends up as a bone of contention between the two Abrahamic faiths. Did the makers of the Constitution provide for such a situation?
Since all conversions carry the poorly hidden holier-than-thou message, that the converting religion is superior to the target religion, such activity would hurt the sensibilities of those who reject conversion and who regard it as an attempt to deplete their flock, the seeds of friction are inherent in all conversion activity.
But has any of this brouhaha slowed conversions? No. They continue unabated. This was the context for Jayalalithaa’s action. A Hindustan Times report (Chennai, October 6, 2002) said, “The law, bound to warm saffron hearts, appears to have been a reaction to the recent mass conversion of poor Dalits in Madurai by the Seventh Day Adventist Chapter.”
Another Hindustan Times report (Chennai, April 1, 2002) said, “The Pondicherry government has ordered an inquiry into alleged forcible conversions to Christianity, after six prisoners had formally lodged a complaint with the state government.” In Chattisgarh, conversions took place with the blessings of the Congress when it was in power The Church regards all tribes as its legitimate constituency. If some overzealous VHP or Bajrang Dal converts a dozen tribesmen to Hinduism, the English media lose their cool.
Such are the power and privileges that the minorities enjoy that even the Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda pleaded with the Calcutta High Court to declare the mission as a separate “cult or religion of Sri Ramakrishna.” But the Supreme Court (July 2, 1995) declared that the mission was not separate from the Hindu religion and therefore did not enjoy the protection of Article 30(1) of the Indian constitution. There is now almost a stampede by victims of discrimination to be considered as minority groups. In Andhra Pradesh, groups denied the benefits of reservations are converting to Christianity to claim royal front-door entry into minority educational institutions.
Critics of the law silence critics of conversions claiming that the missionaries are serving the poor and the illiterate. This is praiseworthy but is it necessary to convert the beneficiaries to Christianity? Does it not amount to saying that we serve you only if you become a Christian?
Conversions have an unedifying history. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Christianity from its beginning, tended towards an intolerance that was rooted in self-consciousness. Christianity consistently practiced an intolerant attitude in its approach towards Judaism and paganism as well as heresy in its own ranks.” The advent of Christianity into entire continents, the Americas, vast parts of Africa, some parts of Asia razed local cultures to the ground.
Let me end by quoting Sultan Shahin again: “The world would be a much safer, happier place if Christians were to convert themselves to Christianity.” What he left unsaid was “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.” The Hindus are not asking anyone to join them; they are only asking their own folk not to leave them. Let not conversions unleash a new phenomenon of Hindu-Christian riots. The Supreme Court had made a clear distinction between the adoption of a religion and a conversion.
Let us all become Indians first. All other identities based on caste and religion can wait. Religion has lost its bonding power after politicians have begun to exploit it for electoral ends. Any Constitution that offers space to religious identities is a negation of secularism. The moment we give primacy to our religious identities, we disown our India First identity.