Is religious conversion really a fundamental right, or can we ban it?
India adopted a flawed European model of secularism on the basis of Nehruvian aversion to local Dharmic traditions where faith does not come from an acceptance of universal truth.
By Jaideep A Prabhu
To most observers, India appears a paradox - teeming with diversity of cuisine, dress, language, pigmentation, and faith under one flag, yet simultaneously simmering with communal tensions.
The paradox is even more glaring in the light of the democratic structure of government, the constitutional protections to minorities, and the high degree of integration of various communities into the public sphere. Social theories shaped by the European experience and projected as universals flounder on India's shores, confusing the neophyte and outsider alike.
The recent conversions and reconversions of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh serve to highlight how the import of a European ideal on religious freedom has the potential to stir up communal tension in India.
The crux of this discombobulation (confusion) lies in the weakness of normative vocabulary to describe India. While scholars have considered whether modernity can exist outside its present European framework, few have been brave enough to chase down the answer. As a result, false universalities of European history such as secularism, liberalism, nationalism, and even time are used to decipher the non-West; any society that fails to conform to these European ideals is thus seen to be less evolved or have failed.
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. In his own words, he approached them "almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past." As a result, the Indian republic's first prime minister transplanted the Western notion of a liberal and secular state onto Indian soil. 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.
Unlike Indic belief systems, the Abrahamic faiths believe themselves to be of divine origin. In the time of Adam and Eve, there was the perfect religion from which Man fell into idolatry, superstition, witchcraft, and false worship; humanity was led back to the True Faith by God as He revealed Himself to Abraham. Since The Word cannot be false, Abrahamic religions came to revolve around a truth axis - either you believed in the true religion or you were wrong and therefore blind, misguided, or evil.
Dharmic faiths, however, remain closer to the true sense of the Roman religio. Wisdom, not truth, came from the meditations and experiences of previous generations as well as one's own. A philosophical kernel was wrapped with customs, traditions, and rituals that were meant to bind families and communities together. Hinduism, for example, has no founder, no particular doctrine or practice, no specific scripture, no central ecclesiastical organisation, and even the concept of god is not essential to it. The notion of absolute truth in such a system is not just irrelevant but impossible to imagine. Thus, these faiths can comfortably coexist without competition and animosity.
This difference is highlighted in the famous conversation between French traveler François Bernier and some Brahmins in 1671 when he tried to introduce them to Christianity: “They pretended not their law was universal; that God had only made it for them, and it was, therefore, they could not receive a stranger into their religion: that they thought not our religion was therefore false, but that it might be it was good for us, and that God might have appointed several different ways to go to heaven; but they will not hear that our religion should be the general religion for the whole earth; and theirs a fable and pure device."
The Hindu view of other beliefs, be they Indic or Abrahamic, can thus best be described as indifference rather than tolerance.
These two systems of thought are mutually exclusive: religion is about the absolute truth or it is not. There is one true faith and others are false religions or all beliefs exist in parallel. The True Faith is in competition with falsehood or beliefs are indifferent to one another. This antagonism creates a flashpoint when it comes to the freedom of religious thought and its propagation. To Christians and Muslims, the freedom to proselytise is essential to their competitive and antagonistic world view whereas non-proselytising religions find such behaviour to be an importunate intrusion into their world.
Unfortunately for the modern secular-liberal state, there is no neutral ground between these two positions; to pretend there is would be akin to accepting an agreement between the lion and the lamb not to eat each other. It is not about an agreement between equals. For a people whose conception of religion is not just a metaphysical and ethical philosophy but also a set of ancestral traditions, proselytism is felt to be an aggressive and often uncouth interference from the outside. Religious conversion disintegrates communities as the convert is torn from old moorings and subject to new rules governing inheritance, lineage, and familial life.
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. The problem of social disruption is so severe that Mohandas Gandhi considered religious conversion harmful to the Indian social fabric. He wrote, “If I had the power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytising... In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink.”
The defence of proselytism and religious conversion bases itself on the notion of religious liberty. This is a befitting solution in a system wherein all religions compete against others for followers and the supremacy of their truth claims but is not as appropriate in one in which some religions demand only to be left alone. As Jakob de Roover of Ghent University argues, the liberal principle of religious freedom implicitly endorses the Abrahamic view of the world that religion revolves around doctrines and truth claims and citizens should be able to not just choose in the free market of religious ideas but persuade others of one's convictions.
Makau Mutua of the State University of New York, Buffalo, exposes the inherent bias of religious liberty by arguing that the doctrine does not level the playing field for all religions but creates an obligation on Dharmic systems - for which they are not culturally geared - to compete as Abrahamic faiths do. This benefits the evangelising religions in their quest for intellectual hegemony. In essence, the preference shown towards the competition of ideas is nothing short of a cultural invasion in a skewed contest to eliminate local customs.
Perhaps the most subversive danger in this debate is secular theology. Usually understood to be a movement from the early 1960s, secular theology was Christianity's reaction to modernity. Scientific advancement and political utilitarianism pushed some Christian theologians to treat the Bible as Christian mythology, thus divesting the sacred yet retain the ideals. Taken out of context, Christian principles appear secular. For example, John Locke's treatise on toleration can hardly be a secular creed when it excludes Catholics and atheists from its ambit. Furthermore, Locke's tolerance appears to be based on the free will of souls to choose between good and evil without which salvation would be meaningless. Human existence is still divided into a spiritual sphere of the soul and a political one of the flesh, and the Protestant Truth was arrayed against the falseness of the world.
As SN Balagangadhara of Ghent University explains succinctly, the assumption of the cultural universality of Christianity informs the Western gaze. Christianity's “theological truths have become the facts of western common sense and scholarly consensus.” One of the features of this universalism is that it wrongly puts Hinduism and other Dharmic faiths on a par with Christianity and Islam and to the detriment of the former.
To return to the Indian state, the framers of the Indian constitution implicitly endorsed the Abrahamic theological claim that religion is about truth when establishing India as a secular republic. An important virtue in a competitive market of religious truth like Europe or the Middle East, secularism has little meaning in a Dharmic system and only serves to buttress Abrahamic binaries when applied to Semitic and Dharmic religions evenly. There is nothing neutral about the Indian secular state; in fact, the constitution was informed by a negative attitude towards the local Dharmic culture.
The problem of Hindutva also stems from Nehru's flawed sense of secularism. Temples were taken over and Hindu customs abolished while personal codes of the "minority" Abrahamic faiths were left untouched in the name of secularism. Faced with a political order that worked against them, Hindus were forced to respond to the doctrinaire threats to their way of life and defend their value of indifference. Attempts were made to define a core set of beliefs, customs, and scriptures, as is evidenced by movements like the Arya Samaj; the earlier attitude of indifference was replaced by tolerance, and Hindus claimed that their non-proselytising nature was a demonstration of their comity towards all faiths unlike Christianity or Islam.
The Hindutva adoption of the notion of equality of all religions upset the Semitic faiths - divine revelation forces the Christian or Muslim to accept his faith as infallible and supreme; the Abrahamic faiths at least shared a common God even if there was some disagreement about subsequent prophets and messiahs but to be measured alongside idolatrous pagans was unacceptable.
By privileging the Semitic moral world order, the Indian state sowed the seeds of violent conflict. The perceived protection of the state via preferential treatment in terms of personal laws, religious institutions, educational establishments, and the outright legal bias (think Shah Bano or the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill) instigates communities against each other and against the Nehruvian state. As Roover eloquently states, "the seeds of religious violence are sown by the liberal state; however, it is the communities that harvest them."
Proselytism and religious conversion is a sore subject in many parts of the world. It is banned in Greece, China, and most Islamic countries, while many others such as Russia and Israel are deeply uncomfortable with it. While Hindu spirituality is not threatened by reading and learning from, say, the Tanakh, Christians, for example, can give up neither the Great Commission of Jesus nor Exodus 20:3-6. In other words, a Hindu need not convert if he wishes to incorporate any idea from another religion into his life but that is not an option for the Christian or Muslim. That is why, as one author wrote, banning conversions is not part of the Hindutva agenda but not banning them is the agenda of aggressive religions.
All democratic societies realise that freedoms are not infinite; as a result, international declarations such as the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981), the Unesco Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995), or the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) allow the limiting of religious freedom if it is necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Though these are not normally considered to include a restriction on proselytism or religious conversion, they have only been tested in European conditions.
A complete ban on proselytism and religious conversion in India is hardly a curb on freedom of religious thought - from the Dharmic perspective, it is only a ban on religious thought of an exclusivist and binary nature; yet Abrahamic religions cannot abandon their doctrines of exclusive truth without violating their core principles. However, a ban on religious proliferation does not create any new obligations upon Christians or Muslims that would violate their sacred tenets. It would only protect local traditions and customs. For some, this might not be an acceptable solution. One can be reminded that secularism does not truly fit the Indian ethos but, more importantly, it is vital to realise that the public sphere has not be desacralised completely anywhere in the world, nor is it desirable.
Countries still place their weekends around the holy days of their majority faiths (Fridays in Islam, Saturday in Judaism, and Sunday in Christianity), and the common calendar is marked from the birth of Jesus Christ - anno domini; oaths are sworn upon religious texts, and Christmas is still a national holiday in many countries. Furthermore, restrictions and bans on controversial issues such as abortion and stem cell research are still informed by religious beliefs. In this climate, a hat-tip to the millennia-old traditions of the overwhelming majority of the Indian people without creating blasphemous obligations on other faiths ought not to be a problem.
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