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Ban religious conversion? It is a 'thaka hua' idea that ignores history

By Abhinandan Sekhri

Editor's Note: The following is a response from NewsLaundry co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri to Firstpost contributor Jaideep Prabhu's article titled, 'Is religious conversion really a fundamental right or can we ban it?" which you can read here

This article in Firstpost  provocatively titled “Is Religious Conversion Really a Fundamental Right or Can We Ban It” is the object of my attention in this piece.

 Ban religious conversion? It is a thaka hua idea that ignores history

Representational image. AFP

“We” can actually ban anything, so that’s hardly a question. “We”, meaning the majority. “We” have banned many things across countries — across centuries — so that’s not so hard to answer and doesn’t warrant a long essay or even deserve a rebuttal. But the pointlessness of the question is hardly the only problem with this attempted blockbuster. How it tries to present its point shows absolutely no sign or understanding of social contexts or how history played out. Like a Salman Khan starrer, it requires a suspension of all laws of physics, of history and continuity but will get the cheers all right.

The first most glaring flaw in this piece is exemplified by this bit: “The root of India’s communal tensions lie in its constitution. Outwardly appearing to take a neutral — secular and liberal — hand in religious affairs, the document remains a travesty imposed upon Indic culture. The reason for this lies in the Nehruvian venture. An Anglicised Kashmiri Pandit that he was, Jawaharlal Nehru made no secret of his disdain for Hindu traditions.” That statement neither does any justice to nor considers how the Constitution was drafted.

The Constitution of India was not framed by Nehru over a glass of scotch or even tea and muffins with Mountbatten. It was an extremely rigorous process with more than a 100 consultations with stakeholders and citizens over (more than) two years. Then there was a constituent assembly with Parsis, Christians and Muslims who were responsible for preparing a draft, and a drafting committee (284 members) who got the final draft ready and were more often than not at each other's throats. The chairman of the drafting committee was Dr BR Ambedkar, who was Dalit. It could be argued that his experiences with Hinduism (he converted to Buddhism in 1956) may also have had something to do with the fact that the Constitution gave us the freedom to choose our religion. Also, Ambedkar’s relationship with Nehru was not the best either. But sure, it’s easy and lazy to say that an “anglicised” Nehru was responsible for the travesty of freedom to choose your religion. Such illogical claims will get the applause and the whistles like a Salman Khan item number or punch that sends a 100 kilo villain flying through the air would, so let’s go with that ill-thought-out position, I guess.

The article also goes on to suggest that the basic human aspiration to be equal and the human instinct of seeking justice (divine or through courts) and trying something new is some religious cultural conspiracy and not a basic instinct of our species.

Some more from the piece before I proceed.

“The dissonance between East and West in this regard is made clear when comparing the Dharmic systems of the former with the Abrahamic faiths of the latter.”

“The moral condescension towards paganism often means an abrupt and sometimes hostile unmooring of a convert from family and friends, tearing the social fabric that had done so well until then with its stance of indifference or non-interference.”

Yup. Until Christians and Muslims came along, everything was perfect and just grand. The varna system through castes had put everyone in their place and that’s where all were expected to stay. If the history of the world has taught us anything, it is that this status quo will not sustain. Like water, a society will move to balance out power imbalances whether brought about by economics and trade or social traditions (an environment of appeasement culminating in a Shah Bano case was a fertile ground for a Rath Yatra, for example). But, according to the author, it appears that “…the social fabric... had done so well until then with its stance of indifference or non-interference”. And all citizens lived in love and happiness sharing rivers of milk and waterfalls of honey with no social friction and the oppressed classes and castes were happy to be that way because when Salman Khan raises his hand to slap Sonakshi Sinha she is expected to say “Thappad se nahi Babuji, pyaar se dar lagta hai”. More whistles, cheers and applause. Because even if we beat you, in our hearts we still love you — and besides it’s for your own good anyway, right?

The fear of “social disruption” that the piece mentions is a bit like President Snow in The Hunger Games who wants no turmoil in society. In any society there will be an evolution of ideas. Buddha, Guru Nanak and Mahavir were born and gained popularity in this very country and were popular enough with their faiths spreading across the land and overseas. Those religions took root and prospered just like any new idea will.

The piece suggests that societies are these static entities with no new ideas being entertained (wherever they come from). There will be disruptions as long as there are differences and unequal power balances, which have always existed and will always exist. And in this churning, societies find short-term equilibriums even as big crests and troughs of social reform come and go. To think that — before the Islamic or Christian swell — “we” are or ever were the culmination point of the entire 4.5 billion years that the earth has existed never to be disturbed is mythical.

The civil rights movement didn’t happen because of religion, it was because the need for a fair and equal society is human instinct and embracing and experimenting with new ideas is deeply ingrained in our psyche. We were born to try new stuff. It’s how fire, the wheel, Islam, the microprocessor, Buddhism, penicillin and Scientology came about. It’s what moves everything — from technology to politics to economics and science. The many social and economic reforms that have taken place across civilisations and across geographies come from that need.

Not giving people the right to change their religion is a thaka hua idea. It has been tried several times over the past centuries and failed. The spread of Islam too has its roots in the completely warped and unequal society where a freed slave (Ali) embraced it (even as he was not allowed to, sound familiar?) attracted by equality of the brotherhood. And, in my opinion, the religion seems all set to become that warped space it chose to once disturb.

If reading is not your thing, the entire history of this version of Islam and Christianity (there are others) is made into a brilliant TV series called The Crusades, aired on History Channel with production values and a scale way bigger than a Dabanng or Kick, but as compelling.

I could go on but really there is another Salman Khan starrer around the corner for which I need to suspend disbelief, logic, physics, history, geography in the huge marketplace of new ideas waiting to be explored, tried, rejected and challenged. That is my instinct and at least thus far — my right.

Abhinandan Sekhri is the co-founder of media critique site,

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Updated Date: Sep 10, 2014 15:21:10 IST