Rajnath Singh is right: A debate on religious conversions is probably overdue

Not for the first time has an important leader from the BJP-Sangh Parivar stable (Home Minister Rajnath Singh himself) called for a national debate on religious conversions. And not for the first time will India's Lutyens mafia probably duck for cover - or shift the debate to communalism. Only in India will so-called liberals run away from a debate where the stronger arguments are possibly on their side.

That Rajnath Singh raised the conversions issue at a conference of state minority commissions on Monday (23 March) is significant. It means the parivar is serious about flagging its concerns and will not allow the issue to die out easily. Atal Bihari Vajpayee raised the issue when he was PM, but he did not have it in him to push the argument, handicapped as he was by his own liberal credentials. Singh seems to be trying his luck now.

 Rajnath Singh is right: A debate on religious conversions is probably overdue

A debate on ghar wapsi and religious conversion is long overdue. PTI

It is a debate worth having, even if you disagree wholeheartedly with the parivar point of view.

The Sangh is clear and unambiguous: it wants a ban on religious conversions. Rajnath Singh made the same point, but then muddied his argument by asking: “Do we need to impose the supremacy of our faith over others? Can’t we decide that serving humanity is fine, but why do people have to be converted to another faith? Why are religious conversions being carried out?”

All faiths consider their own versions of god and scripture superior, but the question of imposing anyone’s supremacy does not arise at all. So Rajnath Singh made a needless observation here. More relevant is his question whether those who do service to humanity need to convert. But the answer is equally simple: the motivation behind one’s humanitarian activities is irrelevant, even if it is important to understand it.

While reassuring the minorities that the NDA government will address their insecurities and protect them, Singh said the government was concerned about the possibility of demographic change through conversions. The Indian Express quotes him as saying: “If we go to the US and try to hurt the identity of that country, will they accept it? Why do we want to change their identity? There should not be any such attempt. How can a country like India allow changes in its demographic profile and character? Let India’s character remain the same.”

In the context of the demographic changes that have already happened in the north-east due to illegal migration, and in Jammu & Kashmir through the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits from the Valley, Singh is certainly right to flag worries about demographic change. However, it is difficult to attribute this change to conversions alone – though some of this may be happening in areas where aggressive evangelical organisations are at work.

Singh is certainly right to demand a debate, since these are not isolated concerns of only the Hindu fringe. These are mainstream concerns, though not articulated so far by ordinary Hindus due to the fear of being branded “communal” by the “Liberal-Left” secularati.

The so-called English-speaking “liberal” elite has always been uncomfortable about discussing conversions and prefers to talk about communalism, as though the two issues are the same.

This is one reason why the media discourse on “ghar wapsi” has been relabeled as one about communalism when this Sangh programme is really about countering conversions through reconversions.

There can be arguments for and against conversions, but there can be none against having an honest discussion in public spaces.

The “liberal” argument against banning conversions is hypocritical – but valid. It wrongly conflates freedom of religion with the freedom to convert – though the two are different things. The “liberals” have no problems with conversions away from Hinduism, but get vocal when attempts are made to reverse or stem this process (as their opposition to ghar wapsi demonstrates). Ghar wapsi thus becomes an attempt to create communal tension, as though conversions away from Hinduism do not have the same effect.

However, the liberal aversion to banning conversions is valid. In a truly liberal state, freedom of religion should also mean the right to propagate and convert someone to your point of view. The only things that can be banned are conversions through force and fraud. Even conversions through inducements (whether psychic or real, like the promise of heaven, virgins, cash or jobs) cannot be proscribed, for each individual is free to accept or reject what he or she believes is in his or her interest. If a politician can get elected by promising free power or laptops, one cannot take a stand against missionaries promising jobs or cash for changing faith.

But there is also another point of view on this. We don’t take this kind of absolute approach to other freedoms. The government bans majority foreign ownership of news media – which is also about freedom to propagate views. We ban even purely commercial activities (multi-brand retail, for example) on the argument that it affects this group’s interests or that. So, the sanctity given to creating a “free market for souls” is inexplicable. What is so special about the harvesting of souls that commerce in this must be free, but not in regular goods and services? Are we saying a Wal-Mart type of religious enterprise like the Catholic church must be entirely free to acquire market share in souls from kirana-shop belief systems?

Why is not reasonable to curb the flood of foreign donations for conversion activities without in any way circumscribing freedom to practice religion or curtailing the activities of proselytisers locally?

Also, if ghar wapsi is a bad idea, why is aggressive evangelisation also not equally bad or condemnable?

A debate on conversions is not a bad idea at all. It is overdue. We don’t have to ban anything, but it’s time to talk about it openly. A discussion on conversion is not a communal activity.

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Updated Date: Mar 24, 2015 17:40:00 IST