Conversions are religious intolerance
by Virendra Parekh on 25 Sep 2008 3 Comments

As anti-missionary (not anti-Christian) violence is reported from some parts of the country, we are once again witnessing the familiar charade of public debate. A government that showed stoic indifference to a series of terrorist acts that killed dozens in several Indian cities; stayed mute when fanatic mobs desecrated the Tricolour on the Independence Day; is alarmed by reported on churches in Orissa, Karnataka, and Kerala. Upset enough to invoke the rarely-used Article 355 to issue directives to Orissa and Karnataka to restore law and order, ignoring the meaning of anti-missionary violence spreading to Kerala, haven of secularism.


The spontaneous response of unorganised Hindu mobs is being portrayed as pre-meditated attacks on Christians by members of blood-thirsty communal outfits. While the Hindu reaction to missionary mischief is highlighted with sharp focus, the original provocation (murder of a Hindu sanyasi and continuous forced conversions) is all but ignored.


The church assumes an air of injured innocence and secularist edit writers and ‘analysts’ indulge in sanctimonious humbug on the duty of a secular state to protect the minorities’ right to religious freedom, including propagation of religion, dangers of ‘majoritarianism’, damage to the country’s image abroad and social fabric at home, etc.


It is, therefore, not surprising that the Karnataka chief minister is under attack for saying that forced conversions are inappropriate. The Indian establishment feels duty-bound to protect, if not encourage, those who are out to subvert Hinduism. The slightest whiff of dissent, the vaguest hint of a different perspective, invites instant condemnation from those who have positioned themselves as guardians of democracy and secularism in the country.


This ostrich-like mentality is not shared by people at large. The government, media and civil society will be missing the wood for the trees if they regard the current spate of violence against missions as attacks on minorities by communal outfits out to polarize society and raise communal temperatures on the eve of (possible national) elections. Large sections of Hindu society have never concealed their discomfort with conversions carried out by missionaries, and particularly with the means employed to win converts.


Missionaries point to the numerous schools and colleges, dispensaries and hospital run by them. They claim it is the iniquities and injustices within the Hindu fold that drive the lower classes to the church. And ultimately, they point to their constitutional right to propagate their religion – a right inserted in the constitution at their insistence. Yet all this put together fails to make a convincing case for conversions.


Hindu leaders from Swami Vivekananda down to Acharya Dharmendra have questioned the motives underlying the much-publicised social service of the missionaries. They have questioned not the ‘service’ per se, but its strong link with conversions. That link is freely acknowledged by missionaries themselves. The Church makes no secret of its strategy of selecting groups which are the weakest, approaching them when they are most vulnerable, and converting them in return for the assistance rendered. [Internationally, this practice abhorred even foreigners when applied in the Asian tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia and Sri Lanka].


India and its Missions”, an official Catholic publication, discusses the Spiritual Advantages of Famine and Cholera under that very heading! It quotes the report of the Archdiocese of Puducherry to his superiors in Europe: “The famine has wrought miracles. The catechumenates are filling, baptismal water flows in steams and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven… a hospital is a readymade congregation; there is no need to go into highways and hedges and compel them to ‘come in’. They send each other.”  Such a passage appears to Hindus as reminiscent of vultures circling over carcasses. Soul for food is a Faustian deal, and offering temptations is the way of Satan, not saints. Yet the church regards it as appropriate action at the proper time.


If selfless service truly motivates missionaries, why doesn’t the church renounce conversions given the resentment and reaction they breed? In fact, why don’t missionaries actively encourage converts to return to their traditional faiths, after assuring them that they would continue to get the same service as before?


When asked the motive behind conversion, most converts talk about food, clothes, loans, jobs, medicine and education. There is hardly any talk of Christ! This is a poor commentary on the spiritual and philosophical worth of a sect that claims to be the world’s only true religion, and arrogantly presumes to be the culmination and fulfillment of all other religions.


If missionaries have faith in the Gospel as Word of God and the tribals’ wisdom to recognise it as such, why do they use force, fraud and allurements to spread it?


If missionaries do no more than selfless service to the tribals and other poor, why do the beneficiaries of their service turn on them? “It is outsiders who instigate people and create trouble”, say missionaries. This is simply untrue – no outsider can instigate simple people to harm or kill their benefactors. Missionaries have the least right to complaint against outsiders coming to their area of work. When they spread out all over the world with the express purpose of destroying traditional religions and decimating local cultures, surely people with the agenda of preservation of natal faith and culture have a far greater right to be present at these locales.


“But they are coming to us because you (Hindus) have neglected, oppressed or exploited them,” we are told. Were this true, by now the entire SC and ST population would have converted to Christianity or Islam (another ‘liberating’ faith). The truth is that despite tremendous and sustained expenditure of money, manpower and manipulation, Christianity has been able to penetrate only a small fraction of softer targets among the downtrodden. Islam, with all its use of state power to win converts, remained a minority religion after six hundred years of rule. This suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with the officially taught history of caste relations in the ancient, medieval and modern ages, though this need not detain us now.


It is normally found, in Dangs (Gujarat), in Kandhamal (Orissa), and elsewhere, that conversions have a disruptive influence on the traditional community lives of tribals. Conversions lead to a split in family and village community, because converts are told to repudiate traditional gods, ways of worship, and rituals. This is happening all over the country wherever missionaries are active among tribals. This provokes a violent reaction. This happened in Dangs a decade ago; this was the reason why Australian missionary Graham Stains was burnt alive in Orissa; this is also at the root of recent incidents in Karnataka.


An obvious way of avoiding such tragedies is for missionaries to abstain from conversions, and to be seen to be doing so. Many modern Hindus wonder why the Church must introduce the tribal to Christ, the Bible and Christianity, when his own objects of veneration and spirituality can serve him even better.


The church claims the right to freedom of religion, by which it means its own right to convert others, and never the other way round. What it forgets is that if missionaries have a right to preach the Gospel, ancient societies professing pacifist non-proselytising religions have a right to defend themselves. When food or service is offered as a right of the giver, the recipient has a right to look into his motives.


Recognising the social disruption that conversions bring about, and the kind of intense reaction they engender, the Centre must move in the matter and enforce legal restrictions on conversions far more stringently. Many States including Orissa and Madhya Pradesh have laws banning conversions through force, fraud or allurement. But, unfortunately, they remain no more than a dead letter in most cases.


The current violence in Orissa and Karnataka, as also in Gujarat and Orissa in the recent past, is a consequence of that failure of the Indian State. Our experience shows that when the State falters in rectifying a wrong, society (usually irate mobs) moves in and takes the law in its own hands. Such actions tend to violent and ham-handed.


Ideally, missionaries themselves should refrain from targeting the weak and the vulnerable for conversion. If they are so sure of the superiority of their dogma, they should try to convert those who are financially independent, who can understand Christian theology, withstand pressure and act independently. This is not an unfair demand. This is exactly what Hindu teachers do when they go to other countries to give an exposition of Hindu dharma; but missionaries have an altogether different agenda.  


The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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