The Religious Conversion Debate in India

Hinduism under Threat  

Posted on 1-April-2015

     "And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers.

     "And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

                                                                                                                  Matthew 4, xviii & xix (A.V.)

     Early in the 19th century, the British colonial government of India relaxed its restrictions on the arrival and working of Christian missionaries in India. The official policy of not encouraging the propagation of Christianity remained unchanged. There is no evidence that the government's attitude towards missionary activities was more than neutral. But, as a consequence of the change of policy, there was a rapid increase in missionary activity in the country and the missionaries did what their vocation requires them to: to propagate their religion. They achieved some success in the sense that some Hindus, mostly lower caste and tribals who had in all the years that their folk memories could stretch to led their lives as either oppressed or marginalised communities on the fringes of Hindu society, converted to Christianity. Christianity which had been confined to Goa since the sixteenth century and to what is now Kerala since the first century spread to the other parts of the country. Schools and hospitals run by missionaries and gatherings in churches on Sundays, no doubt attracted notice among the population at large. This new phenomenon of new closely knit Christian communities gave occasion to sections of conservative Hindu society, especially in north India, to start seeing in missionary activity a threat to their religion. With the rise of nationalism in the country, some Hindus also started seeing missionaries, mostly European, as an extension of colonial power. One visible manifestation of this Hindu reaction was the start by the Arya Samaj towards the end of the 19th century of a movement called shuddhi, or purification which were campaigns for re-admission into the Hindu fold of those who had converted to Christianity or Islam. This movement gained strength in early twentieth century but having made  pitifully small gains, went into oblivion by the middle of the century. A lethal and long term consequence of conservative Hindu campaigns against missionary activities has been latent hostility towards Christians in sections of Hindu society, more virulent in north India than in the south. This hostility surfaces from time and takes many guises but it also makes possible incidents like the burning to death of an Australian missionary in Orissa about a decade and a half ago.

     Not counting St. Thomas who, on credible evidence, came to India in around 78 A.D. and founded a Christian community in Kerala which has been there since then, Christian missionaries have been active in different parts of India at least since the Portuguese established their presence on the west coast of the Deccan in early sixteenth century. Their number increased in the nineteenth century. Yet after all the preaching of the gospel and all the proselytisation, during most of the last six decades the number of of Christians of all denominations taken together has, as a proportion of the total population been extremely small-- according to census reports, 2.3%(1951),2.6%(1971),2.5%(1981), and 2.3%(1991,2001,2011). These numbers hardly show that the Christian community of India is on the way to becoming a very large section of the population. While talking of  missionary activities defenders of Hindu religion talk of the missionaries using temptations or coercion in their drive for conversion. It is difficult to see how Christian missionaries who wield no physical force can coerce any one to change his religion in order to become a Christian. In the unlikely event of any Christian using pressure of any kind on anyone in order to convert him, it is open to that person to take recourse to law and not to sundry groups to generalise on the basis of an odd example and raise cries about Hinduism under attack. The other point made by those opposed to missionaries is that they use allurements of different kinds to convert Hindus. Now here we enter the arena of an individual's personal decisions.  Motives of individuals behind their decisions are their private matter and another person can never know what they are. One person may be attracted by the promise of an eternally happy after-life for the virtuous; another may be impressed by the exemplary devotion to the service of mankind of a Christian missionary and yet another may see another advantage. Such matters cannot be the concern of a third person any more than a Hindu's preference for shakti worship over devotion to Krishna can be a third person's concern. The impulse to impose some kind of restriction on the conversion of Hindus to other religions is not too different from the application of anti-apostasy laws in some Islamic countries on those who wish to abjure Islam. Many in India would gladly join an international chorus of condemnation if a man in Pakistan were to be imprisoned on charges of apostasy and at the same time join the chorus in India in support of an anti-conversion law. This constant raising of the conversion bogey has resulted in anti-conversion laws of different restrictiveness in some states and in fact some princely states had also enacted such laws before Independence.

     Conversion of Hindus to Islam has been the subject of a different kind of discourse. For conservative Hindus, the central dogma--fundamentally flawed-- is that since the time Muslims came to power in Delhi at the end of the twelfth century and over a period of time practically everywhere else in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they not only indulged in ruthless repression of the population but also forcibly converted Hindus to Islam. Nearly every Muslim ruler of India, Akbar included, is inevitably a part of their demonology and Auranghzeb, the sixth Moghul ruler of India an arch-villain. If it had been the policy of India's Muslim rulers to convert India to Islam, their achievement was quite modest, for according to the 1941 census--the last for the whole of pre-partition India--Muslims were 23.7% of the whole population. In post Independence India, the proportion of Muslims has gone up from 9.8% in 1951 to 13.4% in 2011. In an article in an Indian newspaper two or three years ago, the historian, Professor Harbans Mukhia mentioned one interesting fact: more Hindus converted to Islam in the 19th century than ever before. He also makes an interesting argument. In pre-Independence India, there were large concentrations of Muslims in the north-west and in the north-east--Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, the North West Frontier Province and the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and Bengal. In the rest of the country Muslims were evenly spread and constituted no more than 15% of the population. If there had been large scale forcible conversions, the largest concentration of Muslims would have been close to the centre of political power. Many have argued that Islam was spread in India not by the sword but through the work of Muslim preachers or of itinerant sufis. As in the case of Christianity, in the case of Islam also those Hindus who converted belong to the oppressed groups living on the fringes of upper caste Hindu society. It is a tragedy that the bulk of India's Muslims suffers from the same disabilities as their Hindu lower caste ancestors. In many ways the latent dislike of Muslims in conservative sections of Hindu society is more poisonous than the dislike for Christians and it does not take much effort by a Hindu demagogue to rouse anti-Muslim fury.

     Though the disquiet over conversions never quite died down, nor did the production of  their jaundiced versions of Indian history by various revanchist Hindu outfits, such discourse receded into the background after 1947 and remained there for the rest of the twentieth century. In the ten months that Narendra Modi has been Prime Minister there has been a recrudescence of anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-conversion talk led by members of the ruling party or its allies such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad. First of all there was talk of a planned campaign by Muslim youth to lure young Hindu women into marriage and compel them to convert to Islam: this was named love jehad. Then there have been a number of ghar vapasi ( literally, homecoming) campaigns in which those Hindus who had converted to Christianity or Islam were welcomed back into the Hindu fold--this was in fact the old shuddhi movement reincarnated. In a number of places Christian churches were vandalised. Christmas day 2014 was declared Good Governance Day, forcing government employees to go to work that day and causing considerable disquiet among India's Christians. India's Muslims and Christians have been on edge under Narendra Modi. Many wondered why he was not speaking against those of his supporters who had been spreading intolerance of other religious communities. Modi finally did speak on protecting India's religious minorities from any harm and the importance of tolerance but he did so after Barack Obama twice within a fortnight--the first time at a town house style meeting in Delhi on 27th January-- said that India could prosper only if there were harmonious and peaceful relations among its religious communities. Narendra Modi still has to demonstrate that he really believes in what he said in that speech on religious tolerance. In the absence of visible action, suspicion will remain that his tolerance speech was nothing more than another of his rhetorical flourishes.

     There is at least one reason to think that on religious tolerance, the practice of Narendra Modi's government will be different from his rhetoric. Not long after Modi's tolerance speech, speaking on 23rd March at a conference of India's minority commissions, Rajnath Singh, India's Home Minister, talked again on the question of religious conversion. He first of all said that his government was committed to instilling a sense of security among religious minorities. Then he went on to make a series of remarks which will end up increasing a sense of insecurity among religious minorities.  He proposed a debate on religious conversion--which is actually short hand for a call for a nation wide anti-conversion law. He went on to say: "Do we need to impose the supremacy of our faith over others? Can't we decide that serving humanity is fine, why do people have to be converted to another faith? Why are religious conversions being carried out?" He talked of fear among certain sections of a possible demographic change in the country and then said that the basic character of the nation should not be allowed to change--he might as well have said that Hinduism was under threat from religious conversion and everything must be done to ensure that Hindu numbers remain intact and then rather bizarrely he said :"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 be no such attempt. How can a country like India allow changes in its demographic profile and character? Let India's character remain the same."

     Bigots cannot be made to change their opinion by argument or empirical evidence. The bigots of the Sangh Parivar--the Bharatiya Janta Party, the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Mahasabha and others--have decided on creating this bogey of conversion and are likely to go on. But unfortunately Narendra Modi has yet to convince people that he really wishes to rein these negative forces in. He has to recognise the damage these forces are causing to the social fabric of India and that if they are not checked the damage caused will become difficult to heal. Checking these forces is of greater importance than the running of bullet trains. Secondly the people in the Sangh Parivar need to understand that the Hindu community is not in danger of being overwhelmed by Christianity or Islam and it has never been so. Threats to Hindu society lie in its internal weaknesses or in Hindu bigotry.           


Share this!

Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time






Custom Search