Ghar vapasi in Agra: The unlevel field in Muslim, Christian and Hindu conversion

A liberal society should neither ban religious conversions nor the offer of inducements for the same. But even so, it is worth noting the advantages traditionally proselytising religions have against non-proselytising religions like Hinduism.

hidden December 12, 2014 10:29:05 IST
Ghar vapasi in Agra: The unlevel field in Muslim, Christian and Hindu conversion

By Rupa Subramanya 

Unfortunately, a lot of the debate surrounding the “reconversion” (details of which are still in dispute) of 200 Muslims to Hinduism recently in Uttar Pradesh, under a ceremony called Ghar Vapasi (“homecoming”) has been framed rather narrowly in the context of reconversion to Hinduism and without the necessary broader context of conversion (principally, to Christianity and Islam) in general.

For starters, Christian proselytising isn’t carried out in the main by well-meaning parish priests going door to door in their neighbourhood handing out copies of the Bible. It’s a slick, big money enterprise funded by rich foreign donors.

Ghar vapasi in Agra The unlevel field in Muslim Christian and Hindu conversion

Representational image. AFP

According to the 2012 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), based on 2011 data, the top three foreign donor organisations in India were Compassion International, USA, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, USA, KinderNotHilfe, Germany, with donations totalling close to $60 million. Adding in other Christian organisations in the top 15 brings the total upto just under $100 million. There’s no evidence that Hindu reconversion activity is backed by anywhere close to this amount of hard cash.

The basic point is a large amount of foreign money pours in to do humanitarian work as well as to proselytise on behalf of various Christian sects. Often the two activities are intrinsically linked.

Compared to the resources and sophistication of Christian donors who come to India with the aim at least in part of harvesting souls of unfortunate Hindu pagans, the competition from the RSS and other Sangh organisations to reconvert seems amateurish. If reports are to be believed in the UP case, they were offering to help the reconverts get BPL ration cards to which they were presumably already entitled! This seems like small potatoes compared to schools, clinics, and other social services provided by Christian missionaries with deep pockets.

It’s noteworthy that conversion and, by definition, reconversion activities are directed towards some of the most disadvantaged members of society, often SCs and STs. These are people who often face discrimination within the Hindu fold and stand the most to gain by getting access to the social services that conversion to Christianity seems to promise. Christian missionaries are not knocking on the doors of the well-heeled in South Mumbai or South Delhi, but are propagating their faith in impoverished and remote places in the north-east and elsewhere.

It’s clear that those trying to convert and those reconverting are not on a level playing field in a variety of dimensions, the most obvious being financial and organisational capabilities, and a wealth of experience in proselytising. The Joshua Project, for example, offers a detailed demographic breakdown by religion and state in India to better assist would-be proselytisers where to target their activity.

But there’s a more fundamental difference: Christianity and Islam are by nature proselytising religions. Their membership is open to all and they’re actively seeking new converts. Indeed, it would be seen as virtuous and praiseworthy if one succeeds in “harvesting souls” and redeeming a few of the pagans from the eternal damnation to which they’re guaranteed due to their lack of the right belief system.

By contrast, as I’ve noted, efforts by those trying to reconvert are clumsy, crude and comical, and that too for a fairly obvious reasons.

Historically, Hinduism has not been a proselytising religion, and the attempt to reconvert those who were converted to Christianity and Islam is of relatively recent provenance. What’s more, Hindu groups are attempting to reconvert those who ancestrally were Hindu and is not seeking fresh converts who have no association with Hinduism. That’s an important conceptual difference with Christian and Islamic conversion that’s been lost in the din.

Conversion has been a touchy subject in India given its association with colonisation and the decidedly unsubtle methods used by proselytisers in the Islamic and colonial periods. While British India had no anti-conversion law for rather obvious reasons, several princely states did have such laws, aimed principally to prevent conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam.

At present five Indian states — Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh — have anti-conversion laws. In theory such laws are meant to prevent conversion that occurs due to duress, coercion, or inducement and allows voluntary conversion where no such factors are present. In practice, however, the terms of reference are so vague, and almost anything would be considered an inducement or duress, even being told, for example, that you’ll be damned if you don’t convert—which as it happens is part of the theology of Christianity and Islam.

Such laws are illiberal and should be abolished. While conversion under coercion or trickery should obviously be illegal, that ought to be covered by a general criminal law which prohibits someone from inducing someone else to do anything using such illicit methods.

The crux is conversion under inducement — such as the offer of money or social services — as a reward for conversion.

This is where those of us who find such practices unsavoury and distasteful need to acknowledge that a liberal society must allow conversion for such reasons so long as someone making the choice is doing so voluntarily. It’s entirely plausible that someone from a disadvantaged community finds it in their rational self-interest to convert to Christianity and it is paternalistic to prevent this.

By the same token, it should be perfectly acceptable for someone to reconvert given it’s their free choice and even if this is done to regain special benefits of being an SC and ST — as evidenced here and here.

It goes without saying, in accordance with liberal theory, that “free choice” can only be exercised by an adult of a sound mind.

Conversion activities directed towards children would, therefore, not survive scrutiny even by a liberal who accepts the right to choose one’s religion. The state can certainly intervene in well-documented cases of “child evangelism”: an orphaned or vulnerable child converted to Christianity through social services cannot be said to be making a free choice in any meaningful sense.

This is a far more nuanced picture than the slanted op-eds and TV debates which cry foul about the “politics of polarisation” as applied to the recent reconversion episode. If that is polarising, then what would you say if a Christian missionary pours scorn, with a nasty, unsavoury and Orientalizing edge, on Hindu deities or makes fun of a “dumb snake god” in their aggressive proselytising zeal?

The solution to the debate around conversion and reconversion is not to ban these practices but to promote a level playing field and free market in religious choice. This is where Hindu organisations trying to reconvert need to take a leaf from the enormous resources and sophistication deployed by Christian missionary organisations.

And to ensure that a truly level playing field does exist and legitimate reconversion activities aren’t swamped by massive foreign funded conversion activities, the Indian government should insist that foreign donors who claim to be coming to India to do humanitarian work stick only to that and that everyone coming to proselytise does so genuinely on a missionary visa and not enter the country under false pretexts of business or tourist visas.

What’s more, if current anti-conversion or other laws are applied against reconversion activities, such as is alleged in the UP case, the same laws must be applied with equal vigour to Christian evangelism and the huge inducements it offers. To be clear, I believe all such laws are illiberal — but so long as they’re on the books they can’t be selectively applied to penalise only Hindu reconversion as reported here while letting Christian and Islamic conversions off the hook.

So long as all of this conversion and reconversion doesn’t prey on children and rests entirely on free choice, the most disadvantaged are the likely beneficiaries as different groups will vie for their loyalty.

Rupa Subramanya is Mumbai based economist and analyst. She is editor at large for Swarajaya. Follow on Twitter @rupasubramanya

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