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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 41

Conversions, Lawlessness and the State

Who is in charge?

Wednesday 1 October 2008, by S G Vombatkere


Religious conversion involves change of belief system and habits, and usually change of name. The changes reflect on the ways of living and doing, and in the way the convert interacts with the world around him or her. This is sometimes precisely what is deeply desired by some people for personal reasons. In such circumstances, denying them the right to convert to another way of life and belief would amount to violation of their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Problems with conversion arise when there are motives on the part of the person who initiates conversion.

Why Convert?

While noting that Hinduism is much larger and encompassing than a mere religion, and that strictly it should not be classed as a religion but a “way of life”, let us see why anybody should convert from one religion to another, specifically from Hindu to Christian. There are perhaps only three reasons, namely, voluntary conversion, forcible conversion and enticed conversion. Voluntary conversion is exercise of the freedom of conscience, and the use or threat of physical or economic force that were used in past centuries by Christians for conversion is totally unacceptable in post-Independence India, and most improbable today. We are left to consider enticed conversion, which is conditional inducement to an individual or a group with offers of cash, materials, employment, etc., accompanied by criticising or ridiculing the Hindu way. This works well with poor people who are desperately in need of the basic necessities of life and opportunities for their children, or have been subjected to personal indignities and physical, verbal or economic violence, like Dalits are even today, six decades after independence, because of the accident of their birth. Poverty combined with the pernicious caste system in the Hindu fold are at the root of enticed conversions.

The degrading and vicious treatment meted out to Dalits persists in spite of constitutional and legal protection, but this is not restricted to Dalits. Adivasi (tribal) people and others who are neither Dalit nor Adivasi but who are poor, are under severe economic stress. The poor also crave and aspire for economic benefit and development from programs of governments that they have voted to power. However, there are huge numbers of poor but self-reliant people, who are being pushed below the poverty line into city slums due to displacement for large projects and SEZs. The “million revolutions” across the country bear witness to this. It is such people, spurned by the Executive, neglected by the Legislature and invisible to the Judiciary, that are easy meat for conversion by enticement.

Regarding such vulnerable people, there is a line of thinking as follows: If a chronically hungry person is offered food, if a socially despised person is treated with decency, if an educationally deprived person is offered opportunity for education and economic growth, or if a poor person is offered medical treatment, only a very exceptional person may question the source of the help. Most will begin to bond with the helper. It is facile to argue that Christians should not offer food to a hungry man, treat a social outcaste with decency, etc. If a poor man’s own society and his own government do nothing for him when he needs it, can a helper be blamed for helping? Some argue that it is alright to help so long as there is no hidden agenda (such as religious conversion, though there may well be other less obvious motivations). The response to that is another question, namely, how many of us are honestly capable of nishkaam karma?

Rather than helping such people, the opposite is happening—they are victimised within the Hindu community. Dalits are denied access to drinking water from public wells, prohibited from co-dining and marriage with “upper caste” communities, their women are beaten, paraded naked or raped for just about any reason, and they are denied entry to temples. If they cannot worship as Hindus, is it wrong if they satisfy the basic human need to worship by accepting Christianity? And in those rare cases when Dalits do prosper economically, their prosperity becomes cause for physical attack by the “upper castes”, as happened recently in Haryana.

Violence against Christians

SOME years ago in Orissa, Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive with his sons while asleep inside a jeep. Dara Singh and others were convicted for the crime said to have been committed due to Staines’ activities in converting Hindus to Christianity. It was alleged that the convicted persons belong to a Hindutva group, but this is denied by the Sangh Parivar. Whatever their beliefs and convictions, Dara Singh and his associates have committed murder, and they have been sentenced accordingly.

Recently Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati was murdered. His supporters held that Christians were responsible and began to attack Christians and their institutions in Kandhamal district (Orissa) while the State Government remained silent.

Very recently, churches in several places in Karnataka have been desecrated and Christians attacked, and some Hindu organisations have claimed responsibility. Their grouse is that Christians are converting Hindus. Perhaps they justify violence since they feel that government cannot stop conversions.

Sure, there are reports of American-funded evangelical agencies converting Hindus. This has been acknowledged by Bishop D’Souza who, at the same time, denied that his church was carrying out conversions. These agencies need to be identified and prosecuted or ordered to leave the country forthwith. Identification of these groups could be done by anybody, but it would be in the interest of the Christian community that disclaims conversion to take the initiative.

Government’s Responsibility

ARTICLE 25(1) of the Constitution of India reads: “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that “propagate” cannot be interpreted as right to convert. The fact that it made such interpretation is because the petitioner believed that conversion had constitutional sanction because of use of the word “propagate”. Thus, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, previously overt programs of conversion have become clandestine.

Whatsoever be the cause, reason or provocation, whosoever commits assault or kills, commits a crime against the State. That is why, in criminal trials it is the State, not some individual, that prosecutes the accused. When conversions happen or are believed to happen, objectors taking the law into their hands by being investigators, judges and executioners cannot be accepted. It is for government to investigate and stop such conversions. If government allows citizens to attack one another without intervening immediately and effectively, it fails in its constitutional duty.

The Bottom Line

OPINIONS as to the scale and method of conversion may vary, but there appears little doubt that some Christian bodies are indeed converting Hindus. Conversion requires funds, and governments can readily trace their source, destination and use to stop it. But the government cannot permit violence by vigilante groups. This cannot be permitted so long as there is an elected in power. A government making the weak excuse that the violence is a reaction to conversions by Christians cannot solve the problem. At best it indicates political weakness and incompetence and at worst, complicity.

In the meantime, as leaders of some Hindu groups openly state on television that they will repeat the attacks so long as conversions continue, people of the Christian community feel embattled and there is palpable terror, not knowing the time or target of the next attack. They are being held hostage to the actions of some members of the Christian community who carry out religious conversion.

Like the present writer who has been a target of proselytisation in his childhood in school pre-independence, most Hindus object to conversions. But certainly most Hindus do not agree with or support the perpetrators of communal violence. There is no substitute for the rule of law. The State and Central governments must not let down the law-abiding majority of India.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired from military service in 1996, from the post of Additional DG (Discipline and Vigilance) in Army HQ, New Delhi. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1993 for distinguished services rendered in Ladakh, in which region he has had over five years’ experience. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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