Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Faith may be propagated, but conversion takes place only if and when a person voluntarily gives up one faith for another

Outcast, convert, citizen, reform

Strip away the conversion hype to find an unyielding quagmire of caste and inequality. Fix this first.

By B G Verghese

Outlook, 18 November, 2002: “India’s Forgotten Gospel of Fraternity”.

The Tamil Nadu Conversion Act’s timing and urgency apropos nothing owes more to Ms Jayalalitha’s Frailty than Faith. Spurred by the politics of piety, the BJP and Sangh Parivar generally have welcomed the move and called for its emulation. Why? Two years ago, after a visit to the troubled Dangs district in Gujarat, the Prime Minister proposed a national debate on the issue and then walked into the sunset. No debate followed. Ms Jayalalitha has stirred one. The Ordinance does what the law of the land substantively provides. It bars conversion by force, fraud or allurement by which is meant temptation, material benefits or gratification in cash or otherwise. Any conversion must be notified to the District Magistrate in a prescribed form. In other words, the State is being empowered to regulate faith and to certify who may change his religious belief, with DMs being called upon to assume the role of national conscience keepers or a thought police. The Tamil Nadu law mandates registration of religion by the state, whereas secularism, enjoining separation of state from church, is a “basic feature” of the Constitution.

Article 25 provides that, “subject to public order, morality and health”, all persons are “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. Faith may be propagated; but conversion only takes place if and when the recipient of evangelical attention voluntarily gives up one faith for another. For the State to insist on a residual power of certification is surely an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of conscience, which is essentially the right of the converted and not of the converter. The Tamil Nadu enactment subverts the basic democratic principles of persuasion and consent while enabling political busybodies to raise a hue and cry, questioning the citizen’s freedom of choice.

The Tamil Nadu enactment subverts the basic democratic principles of persuasion and consent

Fraudulent conversion has been abjured by major Christian denominations. Where such manipulation is reported, necessary action must follow. This is different from presuming force, fraud and allurement to be inherent in every act of conversion. Such an assumption is a red herring as no one has yet cited any conviction on this charge even in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh where anti-conversion laws have long been in existence. Many tribal communities have their own beliefs. Yet the process of Sanskritisation through interaction and cultural assimilation over time entails conversion by social osmosis as it were, but does not imply force or fraud. The same cannot be said of “reconversion” drives by the VHP which by their very rhetoric suggest that they are part of a deliberate political programme.

Hinduism preaches an inclusive, tolerant and accommodative philosophy representing a body of faith combining many strands. It is an eclectic way of life. Hindutva on the contrary is an exclusive and chauvinistic cultural-nationalist formation of a Sangh Parivar out to consolidate and expand its political base by appropriating real or imagined history and sacred geography. The politics of conversion and re-conversion is part of that pursuit.

Most though not all conversions are from the Hindu fold. The principal driver has been the yearning of the socially disenfranchised for emancipation from the intolerable indignity and torment of widespread caste oppression even half a century after independence.

Sati, the excommunication of widows, the superstitious propitiation of unseen powers, child marriage, bondage, serfdom, caste discrimination and other regressive practices continue to disfigure the social scene. And in each case, there are those who would justify what the Constitution has “abolished”. The recent lynching of five dalits in Haryana for flaying a dead cow was followed by a post-mortem on the animal. Implicit in this grotesque turn is the VHP leader, Giriraj Kishjore Singh’s theorem that the carcass of a cow, not even a live animal, is worth more than five innocent dalits. Shocked, several vocal dalits variously converted to Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Cows are part of the nation’s animal wealth, yet few countries in the world so ill-treat cattle. Since culling cows is prohibited, they are done away with clandestinely; alternatively, dry cows and aged and otherwise unwanted animals are callously let loose in town and country to survive as best they can. Delhi’s streets tell their own story of cruelty to these unfortunate animals by those who profess to venerate them.

Hinduism faces a deep crisis of arrested social reform despite some puny efforts touted by the VHP. Conversions are only an outward manifestation of a malaise being increasingly exposed through the inexorable process of dalit and tribal empowerment. In the absence of any other mode of redress, conversions facilitate a transition from feudal inegalitarianism, masquerading as religion, to full and equal citizenship, the birthright of every Indian. As self-appointed custodians of faith, Hindutvadis have attempted to appropriate Hinduism as a vote bank for scarcely veiled political ends. Their engineered protests against conversion aim to perpetuate a social gulag from which millions facing oppression seek release.

Likewise, the country’s failure to universalise education and implement meaningful agrarian reform cannot be entirely dissociated from the efforts of zealots out to preserve a social order based on caste hierarchies. “Naxalism” in Bihar, Andhra, Orissa, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh constitutes a revolt against willful caste-land-feudal oppression to which the State has turned a Nelson’s eye. If society has not produced any outstanding social reformer after Gandhi and Ambedkar, the State has been weak and vacillating in doing its constitutional duty. The record of the Commission (earlier Commissioner) for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is a sad story of studied indifference on the part of successive governments. The key post of Secretary to the Commission remained unfilled for four years its Director-General Police, who monitors and acts on complaints of atrocities against dalits and tribals, has just been appointed after nine years. Parliament has seldom found time to debate the Commission(ers)’s Report and demand action on its recommendations.

The [lack of] agrarian reform cannot be dissociated from efforts by zealots to preserve 'order' based on caste

The Commission’s latest Report (1998-99) refers to the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE). This cites social prejudices facing SC children in schools from upper class students, teachers and parents and even the State. Such discrimination is among the reasons for high drop-out rates. Something has certainly been done to uplift the underprivileged sections of society, but nothing like enough. The social priority and commitment to Fraternity has been conspicuously lacking. Reservations in representation, education and public employment have been the principal instrument of change. Affirmative action that puts disadvantaged persons on a fast track is a useful instrumentality. But this has only touched limited numbers because elementary education is far from universal, adult education has been neglected, while public employment covers barely five million persons as against an SC-ST population of over 250 million. Moreover, reservation benefits have largely been confined to the “creamy layer”.

The Constitution has abolished untouchability. Yet the Commission’s Report for 1994-96 lists many forms in which this evil is practiced. SC bridegrooms are not allowed to ride mares in villages. SC’s cannot sit on their own charpoys when persons of other castes pass by. They are not permitted to draw water from common wells and, in some cases, from hand pumps: an SC girl was even blinded for committing such a sacrilege in a government school. Tea-shops and dhabas use separate crockery and cutlery for SC customers. Barbers refuse to cut their hair. Separate colonies built under the Indira Awas and Ambedkar housing schemes perpetuate segregation.

Caste clashes, murder and excommunication have followed land disputes and inter-caste marriages. A Brahmin priest in Goa was forced out of his village last August for marrying a dalit couple in the temple. Some weeks later, dalits were violently denied access to a tank and temple at Chakwara near Jaipur lest they defiled both. The Gujarat State Board of School Textbook’s Standard 9 Social Studies reader notes the depressed condition of the SCs and STs but goes on to add that “of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise the importance of education in life”.

The relentless upward thrust of newly empowered cohorts within the social pyramid threatens a status quo based on layers of social inequity, exploitation, subjugation and congealed violence. The Bhopal Declaration on Dalit Rights (January 13, 2002) and more recent National Conference of Dalit Organisations’ (NacDor) conclaves have sounded the trumpet. Feudal-caste interests would stem the tide and invoke the law and order machinery to uphold the established order. Since caste divides, resurgent dalits, tribals and OBCs are sought to be contained by appeals to Hindu unity in defence of faith: Ayodhya vs Mandal. The formula: when caste threatens, appeal to religion.

An external enemy, the outsider, foreigner, the pseudo-secularist or “other” has variously been conjured up to rally the faltering around the standard of “faith”. Subtle or crude efforts have been made to co-opt the underclass – dalits and adivasis - to fight what is assiduously and aggressively touted as the good fight. Ayodhya is a squeezed lemon.

The battle for social reform must be joined by society and State. It is "Hindutva" that is foreign to the Hindu tradition.

Well then, conversions. Hindutva preaches an “innocent victimhood” and the striving to revive a glorious past, earlier stolen, whose restoration is now threatened by external and “foreign” enemies and Hindu secularists. An imagined or embroidered past has to be brought alive by rewriting history and incorporating myth and “fact” to prove the premise. These revivalists are India’s modern cavemen, a unique species who believe they can walk backwards into the future. In this situation, Muslim Indians must not shrink back into the ghetto or opt out after Gujarat. The community must bestir itself to modernise, reform, compete and change. Christians too must reject the carryover of caste that disfigures the Church and admonish revivalist and so-called charismatic preachers who revile other faiths while propagating their own. Both are unacceptable.

Overall, there is a battle for social reform that must be joined by society and the State if India is to celebrate its diversity in a genuinely plural democracy and affirm its common citizenship in accordance with the ideals adumbrated in the Preamble to the Constitution. Especially Fraternity. All those living in India were once designated “Hindu”. That is the meaning to which we must return, distinguishing faith from culture. Meanwhile, conversions are less a matter of counting souls than gaining citizens. It is Hindutva that is foreign to the “Hindu” tradition.

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