Mental shift

Manage your mind and you can manage your life

Conflict over conversions

Posted by jytmkh on September 29, 2008


The recent communal clashes in Orissa and Karnataka have shown that the danger to Indian society and culture is from the abandonment of civilised debate over differences and the widespread adoption of violent means to all kinds of ends.

Why then should citizens not seek refuge in whatever faith answers their particular needs, spiritual or otherwise, at particular times?

At a recent memorial meeting in Bangalore to pay tribute to Vimala Murthy, a friend’s extraordinary mother, her US-based son recounted an amusing anecdote about her first visit to his new home many years ago. Alone at home during the day while he was at university, she inadvertently fell prey to a pair of Jehovah’s Witness evangelists determined to save her soul.

Encouraged by the fact that she had let them in and heard them out on the first occasion, they turned up at her doorstep several days in a row. Too polite to tell them where to get off, she finally proposed that since she had given them a patient hearing maybe they ought to return the courtesy. They agreed and she proceeded to deliver an hour-long discourse on Hindu philosophy. They never returned.

That anecdote reminded me of my own mother’s experience with a couple of fresh-faced Mormons (adherents of the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) who invited themselves into my parents’ apartment in Geneva and began to extol the virtues of their version of Christianity. The fact that she was already a Christian — belonging to an Indian community that had been Christian several centuries before the faith reached the shores of America and, indeed, much of Europe — obviously made no difference to their mission.

She let them have their say for a while and then proceeded to tell them exactly what she thought of some of the beliefs and practices of their church, not to mention their attempts at proselytising. I remember feeling sorry for the young men who turned red and white in turn as they listened to this unexpectedly well-informed and articulate woman in a sari. They, too, never returned.

Lost facts


I recall these incidents as I attempt to figure out what I think (as opposed to feel) about the recent violence against Christian institutions and individuals in Orissa and Karnataka, the latest in the series of sporadic, often brutal, attacks in different parts of the country over the past several years that only occasionally gain nationwide public attention.

The stories may seem trivial in the current, distressing context but, for me, they highlight some facts that seem to have got lost somewhere, including the reality that even long-time Christians are sometimes targets of proselytisation. Indians from socially and economically privileged backgrounds certainly know how to deal with unwanted attention from anyone who might try to woo them in the name of religion.

Those who are socially and economically vulnerable may be more susceptible to evangelists of various kinds with different agendas (who are not confined to any one faith or ideology) for diverse reasons. But it would be disrespectful to the poor and the socially marginalised to assume that they would unthinkingly allow any propagandist, religious or otherwise, to lead them by the nose.

After all, these are the people — not the educated middle classes — who repeatedly throw up election results that surprise and baffle political pollsters and pundits. They may well accept the money, clothes, liquor and other inducements offered by political parties but their voting decisions are understandably based on their own calculations about merits and benefits.

So for every story about a convert who switched religions for gain of some sort, there are several about persons who make use of the educational, healthcare and other services of faith-based organisations without changing their creed. And for every story about a family divided by religious conversion there are many about families who find their own amicable ways of dealing with religious difference.

Complex factors


Of course, as several commentators have pointed out, a number of complex factors, including issues of land and livelihood, contributed to the recent eruption of prolonged violence — especially in Orissa. As in other situations, what appears to be a communal conflict is not necessarily or primarily rooted in religion. However, the power of religion is often used to rally the troops on either side of any divide.

At the same time it is impossible to disregard the role of religion as a source of security, comfort, succour and hope for large numbers of people. Many middle class Indians of different faiths find meaning in the teachings of one or other of a wide range of gurus (past and present), join various religious movements, and choose to make vows at places of pilgrimage associated with religions other than their own. For instance, on a trip to Israel with a group of Indian artists (all Hindu) a couple of years ago, I found that many of them were more enthusiastic about genuflecting and lighting candles in various churches than I was.

Why then should Dalits or Adivasis — or any other citizens — not seek refuge in whatever faith answers their particular needs, spiritual or otherwise, at particular times? What right does anyone else have to question their right to do so?

The venerable leaders who drafted the Indian Constitution acknowledged this right 60 years ago, during the debate preceding the passage of Article 19 (now Article 25), which guarantees the right to freedom of conscience.

For example, in his closing speech Dr. K.M. Munshi, well-known champion of Indian culture and founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, justified the inclusion of the right to propagate (along with the right to profess and practice) religion, saying: “I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences.”

Sea change


What a sea change there has been in public discourse in this country over the past few decades. If anything endangers Indian society and culture today it is the virtual abandonment of civilised debate over political and ideological differences and the widespread adoption of violent means to all kinds of ends.

In this connection it is a matter of concern to me that a few Christians (including some holding prominent positions) have sought to explain and excuse, if not to justify, the retaliatory stone-pelting resorted to by some rightly angry youth after the attacks on places of worship in Mangalore. Never mind the exhortation to turn the other cheek that is quite central to Christianity (even though some interpretations exclude self-defence), but that is a dangerously slippery path to take.

In the midst of all the mayhem we may be missing all kinds of opportunities to “cultivate hope,” in the words of the celebrated Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away last month. The period between the International Day of Peace (21 September) and the International Day of Non-Violence (2 October, Gandhi Jayanti) could be one such occasion.

At a time when unacceptably large numbers of Indians continue to have no access to basic needs such as food and shelter, when too many have too little access to education and healthcare, and when there is extensive unemployment and economic exploitation, not to mention social exclusion, across the land maybe we all need to rethink our priorities. Is religious conversion the best that we can do? Is it the worst?


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