I am a Christian. I believe that conversion is abhorrent when it is done for the wrong reasons. I have always believed that every person can reach their God through their own religion. But reading the comments on the raging conversion debate has brought many ideas to the fore.
First, the country needs a clear understanding of ‘conversion’, at least in terms of Christianity. There are a few small sects, such as Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other fairly fundamentalist Christian groups who convert. Those fundamentalist Christian groups have put a foot in my door to try and convert me from Catholicism to their creed. They believe my brand of Christianity is not the true brand. Therefore, before tarring all Christians with the same brush, those screaming ‘conversion’ at Christianity should understand this. Secondly, all religions need to introspect. Thousands of Catholics from Brazil and other parts of largely Catholic South America have converted to the Pentecostal and other small churches. The reason? The Catholic Church has failed them. The smaller churches provide them the support of a brotherhood and sisterhood, a close community that the early Christians had and lost as parishes became much larger.
I am ashamed of the history of my religion where bigoted Catholics, both Spanish and Portuguese, carried out the decimation of millions of indigenous communities in South America and then converted the rest by the sword. I am ashamed of the huge scandal in which many boys and girls were sexually abused by paedophile priests. But I am pleased that, finally, the paedophiles were exposed, punished and banished from positions of authority. Much more reform is needed and I am pleased that finally we have a Pope Francis, who is starting the process of introspection.
Asking the right questions I think all religions need introspection. Muslim moderates should ask why a five-year-old girl must be in purdah instead of being assured of justice when a paedophile leers at her. Similar questions about the marital rights of Muslim women and other diktats need questioning. Not from a Western perspective but from the perspective of humanity and decency. The Brahmo Samaj protested against child marriage, sati and encouraged widow remarriage. A lot more has to be done within Hinduism to fight conversion effectively.
I bring this up because >when I wrote, some years ago, in The Hindu, that I abhor the conversion of poor people by offering them free food and education (the so-called ‘rice Christians’), there was a howl of protest from my Dalit friends. They quoted B.R. Ambedkar, who had exhorted them to leave Hinduism if they wanted to be freed from the curse of casteism, oppression and untouchability. I receive reports everyday from Dalit networks of rape, murder and other atrocities committed on Dalits. The crimes go unpunished largely because the politicians in charge and the police in the local stations are from the same caste as the perpetrators. Most of these Dalits are converting to Buddhism, which does not appear to provoke the ire of the Hindutva brigade. Can you blame them for fleeing a religion that has persecuted them for millennia?
I have always considered that only rather stupid Christian missionaries would convert people by offering them food and education. Technically and theologically, that is not a conversion at all. Still, while I understand Hindutva anger at these conversions, definitely brought about by foreign funds, the fact remains that the population of Christians in India remains at 2 per cent. All the might of the British Empire could not succeed in enticing a serious number of Hindus into the Christian flock. Even within this 2 per cent, significant conversions happened long before the British arrived, when St. Thomas landed on the coast of Kerala and preached his message in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Those were genuine conversions, 2,000 years ago, which is what makes those churches particularly strong.
Today, Ghar Wapsi programmes are being carried out in Jharkhand, Bihar and other states, allegedly by terrorising impoverished communities and by reportedly taking them back into the Hindu fold with threats. Journalists should investigate these claims. I am aware that as a Christian, I will be accused of bias, so I will not venture further.
Bad strategy, bad PR The new war on Christianity is counterproductive, and strategically stupid. It will not only harm the image of India globally, it puts into jeopardy the millions of Hindus living peacefully and happily in the U.S., Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia. I have already begun to read about hate graffiti sprouting up on Hindu temples in the U.S. The NRIs who funded the Modi campaign will not be pleased about the damage to India’s image just as they are beginning to be proud of the country’s emerging global position. Nor will they appreciate the backlash that might affect them sooner or later, as news spreads to churches abroad about the vandalising of Christian churches, the rape of nuns in Kolkata and Orissa, and the burning down of a Delhi church.
Coming back to conversions, what about the thousands of Americans and Europeans who ‘convert’ to the Hare Krishna cult? I have been stopped in New York by proselytising saffron-clad and vermilion-smeared Caucasian Americans urging me, an Indian, to become a Hindu. I was amused. But the question is, can one then extend the conversion debate to Hindu proselytisation of emotionally starved Westerners as well? I haven’t seen that discussion anywhere.
I opted, very decisively, to stay in India, in the 1970s, when most of my Hindu friends from university fled to the U.S., Canada or Australia in search of a materially better life. I stayed because I am Indian. This is my home. And I, too, as retired IPS officer Julio Ribeiro said in a recent article, feel threatened for the first time in my life, in my country.
(Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a freelance writer based in Gudalur, the Nilgiris.)