Debating the conversion conundrum

Sometimes as I watch TV, I feel a sense of despair. One sees public debates which are not truly public. In fact, one wonders whether they are even representatives. I am referring to the political battles on the television when each party sends a spokesman to pose an official line. What we have is a desiccated choreography of positions without the dance and dynamic of debates. At the end of the rituals, the audience realises that there has been little argument and less conversation. Each man recites his set piece and moves on glibly. I felt this way while watching the debates on conversion. The very word conversion is like a political signal generating animosity and anxiety around each little event. Recently, when the Bajrang Dal grandly announced that it was reconverting a few thousand Christians and Muslims, the nation’s intelligentsia went apoplectic seeing a threat to constitutional values. What was interesting to notice is that the word ‘conversion’ means different things to different people; that the dictionary definition does not quite capture the contextual emotions of the word — meanings one should open up the debate to by looking at the various nuances of the word.

> Read: Conversion and freedom of religion

Strands to conversion

Conversion is a ritual act where an individual or group affirms a faith different from the one previously held. The discussion is not so much on the ritual change but on the audience response to that change. One can discern six different strands here. There is first the conversion of lower caste Hindus to Islam or Christianity. The economics element was primary; in fact even among Christians, such groups were called Rice Christians. The Bajrang Dal event where Muslims and Christians reconverted to Hinduism is another variation. The Dal calls this act homecoming (Ghar Vapsi). It felt that this act was a return from exile and cultural displacement and considers it an act of historical rectification. The idea of historical rectification usually involves the corrections of texts, especially ideological debates. One saw in such acts, especially around the Stalinist era, that a major personality would be dissolved into a non-person.

The Bajrang Dal felt that by reconverting these individuals, it was restoring justice by reconstituting the original normalcy. The right wing announced that it would reconvert another 4,000 Christians and Muslims on Christmas day. The Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) felt that this was a true vindication of history.

A third type of conversion takes place among Dalit movements. These groups reject caste and enter Hinduism and opt for new Buddhism. As Ambedkar writes, their opposition to the injustice of Hinduism is clear. Here, conversion is first a rejection of Hinduism, and second, an affirmation of a new social identity as a vehicle for social transformation.

There is a fourth kind of conversion where the individual undergoes metanoia, a fundamental change of belief and accepts another religion and its tenets. This is a genuine act of belief. The individual attains a born again feeling as he acquires a new belief. Such a belief can be transformational or it can carry over the old supposition. For example, one realises that even in conversion to Christianity, caste is kept alive. Many groups see conversion to Christianity in genealogical terms and new converts are often reduced to a lower status and even forced to attend a separate church. In fact, Christianity embalms caste.

>Read: The Hindu's Sunday Anchor story: Conversion Confusion

Hinduism, on the other hand, does not allow for conversion. One is born a Hindu and that is that. Hinduism refuses conversion but allows for syncretism. A hybridisation of beliefs, syncretism and conversion are anchored in totally different views. Conversion is exclusive but syncretism allows for combinations. A Hindu will enthusiastically attend the Velankanni festival. Hindus may in fact include Christ as an Ishta Devata. According to the ‘People of India’ survey conducted by K.S. Singh, there are at least 300 communities which believe in more than one religion.

There is a fifth act of conversion which is more tactical or instrumental. The individual converts to another religion to evade a legal obstacle. Actor Dharmendra converted to Islam so that he could marry Hema Malini. Here, conversion is not an act of commodification but of convenience. Not a change in belief but a mere instrumentality.

Through enticement

It is the sixth variant which is becoming most problematic. Here, conversion becomes a hustle, an act of enticement, a force or an incentive for the possibilities of an Aadhar card. As a cynic puts it today, conversion is just a BPL card away. It is this act of conversion which is problematic and it is this that the RSS is challenging through large-scale acts of reconversion. It has opened a Pandora’s box where a conversion becomes an extension of development and elections.

Conversions have become a signal for violence. The media still talks of the murder of the Australian missionary, Graham Staines, in Odisha. But conversions can also bring about a clash of cosmologies. In Odisha, local tribals will not plough the lands when they think its menstruating. A tribal who becomes a Christian sees no such problem. Two different world views provoke conflict over land.

>Read: Propagation without proselytisation: what the law says

The issue of caste looms large over the controversy. There is an annabel aspect to caste. When the British first came as adventurers and traders and socialised with Indians, there was a hope that they would one day become a caste. There was an ease of interaction which ceased when the missionaries came. Categories and boundaries became harder and the vibes of the adventure followed setting up an even more rigid hierarchy.

The RSS and the Dal want the unity of religion but realise that divisiveness of caste. This prompted a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader to suggest that those who reconvert have the option of fusing their caste. There is a touch of naiveté and yet shrewdness, a sense that the reconversion is another form of Sanskritisation. A tactic for upward mobility. The idea of caste as individual choice would destroy the logic of the caste system.

As we watch these aspects play out, what one notices are different ideas of victimhood and redemption. The Bajrang Dal is offering what it believes to be homecoming. A return to the original state.

Using history

Each group uses history as a shifter. For Dalits, conversion is a rejection of history. For Christians, the threat of reconversion challenges their rights as citizens within a secular framework. Muslims also appeal to the Constitution stating the suggestion that loyalty to any other religion is a threat to patriotism.

What one is facing is a tinderbox of emotions where each group lights its own matchstick. I am personally against conversion. I feel it should be restricted to real changes and beliefs. To use it as a political act, to rectify history or the inequities of caste creates deep violence. When the Bajrang Dal threatens mass conversion, it is playing out a majoritarian tactic of threatening minority being.

There is need for dialogue, debate and its adjustment judgement where our religion must debate belief within a constitutional framework. One has to move with the assumption that every citizen has two critical texts to follow — his own religious code and the Constitution of India. Second, one has to dispense with ugly stereotypes. One has to realise that Muslims are not a democratic threat. Injustice can be restored by rectifying history. Instead of seeing reconversion as homecoming, the majority community needs to make the minority feel at home. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence affects his credibility as a head of the nation loyal to the Constitution.

Minority leaders have to be less prickly and more reflective about the impact of conversion but it can’t be part of a fundamentalist claim to rights

Yet, minority leaders in turn have to be less prickly and more reflective about the impact of conversion but it can’t be part of a fundamentalist claim to rights. There is a politics and even aesthetics to conversion achieved through commodification. One often witnesses this in disaster areas when missionary groups induce conversions in return for relief. Missionaries have to realise that relief and beliefs have to be kept separate. Yet, Hindutva forces have to understand that Christianity is not a colonial affair in India, but is in fact older in India than in the West.

The current attitudes, whether apoplectic secularism, paranoid minoritarianism or repressive majoritarianism, do not respond to the issue. Let us face it. Our Constitution provides a secular framework, while our multiverse of religions, a world of its intense meaning. Our secularism cannot be empty, our religions cannot be theocratic. What we need is pluralism, a sense of dialogue, acts of storytelling, and where the groups respond creatively to other beliefs. Even if Mr. Modi remains silent, our society must dig deep into its cultures and the Constitution to respond to the latest fundamentalist conundrum.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 11:21:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Debating-the-conversion-conundrum/article10955919.ece

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