ByÂ Thomson Chakramakkil:
The past decade witnessed a colossal wave of anti-conversion laws cracking down on missionary work in various Indian states, ranging from Gujarat to Himachal Pradesh. While the necessity of preventing forced conversions is real and undeniable, a meticulous examination of the recent Freedom of Religion bills points to how attempts are being made by various state governments to militate against the “danger” of people converting to other religions from Hinduism, especially to religions such as Christianity, to which they are being diligently acquainted to through work of evangelisation.
The recent laws, which include a demand for prior notification to the government before deciding to convert to a religion of one’s choice, is, to say the least, indicative of how a misguided sense of national religion has managed to crawl into the framework of our very constitution, that has always been dignified by well-founded secular ethos.
Before taking a stand on the legal amendments in question, one needs to look through the Indian constitution with a fine tooth-comb. Article 25 of Indian constitution grants citizens the right to profess, practise and propagate their faith in a manner that does not disrupt public order, and does not affect public health and morality adversely. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a series of anti-conversion laws, which are, according to the state, designed specifically to prevent conversions that are forced, and rightly demand clampdown.
All the same, what places the activities of missionaries on a bumpy terrain is the thin line between propagation and conversion. Various communal forces have, in the recent past, misinterpreted and abused anti-conversion laws, and used them as an excuse for challenging the rights of citizens and bashing the religious minorities. Instances of missionary persecution reported from various corners of our country, particularly such as the one carried out in Orissa by RSS and their allies in 2003, which killed twelve people and displaced as many as two-thousand, are, in fact, indicative of the collapse of a coherent tradition that championed cultural tolerance and plurality of religions. The fundamentalist notion of equating non-Hindu with non-Indian, and protecting this “fragile” Indian (Hindu) culture from the vile claws of missionaries, with acts masked as vigilante justice, is indeed a little more than baffling. Even more unfortunate is how right-wing thinkers like Arun Shourie trivialize acts of sheer brutality, such as the murder of Australian missionary Dr. Graham Staines and his children, by traditional nationalists, as a justified act of retribution for “converting” people.
Considering the apathy with which human right violations are ignored by the state, and non-coerced choices of individuals in accordance with the constitution are regulated, there is a need to re-evaluate how the legal system operates in the world’s largest democracy.
While it’s absurd to claim that missionaries are socially radical on principle, or their activities are not motivated by self-interest, their works for the betterment of the under-privileged have been, and continues to be, widely acknowledged and commended by the civil society. To claim that Indian culture is a singular abstraction which is “threatened” by the “foreign” beliefs propounded by these missionaries, and to hamstring the exchange of beliefs with concerns of social breakdown, are ways of being profoundly ignorant of the elasticity of our social fabric and carelessly dismissing our long history of religious co-existence.