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Anti-conversion laws constraining individual religious freedom may make for good politics but—as with cooked-up legislation in general—it will deliver more controversy than results. Photo: HT
Anti-conversion laws constraining individual religious freedom may make for good politics but—as with cooked-up legislation in general—it will deliver more controversy than results. Photo: HT

Religious conversion is a two-way street

Hindu groups deserve the freedom to attract people to their fold, as much as other religions do

For decades, when Hindu groups protested over religious conversions by Christian missionaries, liberals were quick to point to a very important freedom guaranteed by India’s constitution: the freedom of religion. And the liberal defenders of religious freedom were right in their support for converts to an alternative faith. Although quite often not motivated by anything more than love for freebies of different kinds, the conversions—since they were voluntary—were legitimate.

But ever since two episodes of ‘ghar wapsi’ (return home)—the first saw a group of Muslims in Agra converting to Hinduism and the second a group of Christians turning to Hinduism in Gujarat—the tide has turned. The idea of forced conversion has suddenly cropped up, and even made it to Parliament.

Self-proclaimed liberals, mostly in the English media, have flagged ghar wapsi as a threat to the nation’s secular fabric. Despite no clear evidence to suggest the conversions were forced, the involvement of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has given enough reason for the opposition to simply assume it to be so. Meanwhile, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s desire to attract non-Hindus into the Hindu fold has been seen as an even bigger threat. (Or at least more dangerous than the Pope’s call in 1999 to Christianize the whole of India)

Irrespective of what the Indian constitution may say about people’s fundamental rights, or what liberals may think to be forced conversion, the freedom to follow a faith of one’s choice and propagate it freely amongst willing listeners could be the least that a decent society could offer its members. In a way, this would merely be an expression of individuals’ freedom to engage in voluntary interaction with their fellow beings within the means of their own legitimate property.

For long, as is well known today, liberals have engaged in selective criticism of Hindutva elements for bigotry, while often failing to hold Christian or Muslim leaders to the same standards. Even the fact that the VHP’s ghar wapsi in Hyderabad failed to attract takers did not sow doubt in liberal minds about their allegations that ghar wapsi involved forced conversions. Thus, of course, none but the most naïve today believe liberals to be flag-bearers of genuine secularism.

While such open dishonesty marks liberal commentary on religious freedom, nothing but immaturity marks the right-wing approach towards the issue. The fact that Hindus have been the major target of conversions should have rightly spurred the Hindu Right to do some serious soul-searching to stop the flow. After all, if lucrative freebies are all it takes for Hindus to switch faith, would it not possibly have—to a large extent—to do with the little knowledge that Hindus possess of their own faith?

Instead, the Right has focused on using legislation as an impediment to prevent voluntary conversion motivated by simple material or marital rewards. The Bharatiya Janata Party or RSS may well prove liberal hypocrisy by challenging the Opposition to support a bill banning religious conversion. But such legislation can only come at the cost of increased state control of private life. There ought to be a better solution that is non-coercive and not prone to misuse—something already found on the ground.

Some Hindu groups in Tamil Nadu, for instance, have taken to increased engagement with rural Hindu children in the summers to ward off missionaries looking to harvest souls. Others have taken to religious education to build vastly more self-aware Hindu communities. These are of course vastly different from the legislative approach of banning voluntary action, but way superior.

For one, it prevents the Hindu religious establishment from taking its followers for granted. Unless Hindus are happy with their own faith, what valid justification could one provide to prevent the outflow of followers—even if only for material rewards? If anything, the real issue facing Hindus today is the overt financial control the government wields over temples. This puts Hindu bodies at a terrible disadvantage against well-funded minority groups engaging in active proselytism.

It is high time for the severance of government from religion to be demanded. Anti-conversion laws constraining individual religious freedom may make for good politics but—as with cooked-up legislation in general—it will deliver more controversy than results.

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