Religion ‘Converted’ to Politics: NEW ERA OF SECULARIZATION…

By Sarkaritel December 24, 2014 14:04

Religion ‘Converted’ to Politics: NEW ERA OF SECULARIZATION…

Religion ‘Converted’ to Politics


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

Parliament’s precious time has got entangled in the controversy over “ghar wapsi” (home coming) programme of thousands of Muslims and Christians to the Hindu fold by the RSS and its affiliate organisations, dropping crucial legislations on further economic reforms. The “reconversion” incidents across the country have evoked enormous political exchanges between the Government and Opposition. This reaction in Parliament confirms the actual and fabricated secular role of religion in Indian politics.

After the “shuddi” function held in Agra recently, where about 300 Muslims were re-converted, a series of programmes were planned to be carried out all over the country. An event scheduled to take place in Aligarh on Christmas Day, described as the “biggest ever conversion camp” has since been banned, and postponed. Pamphlets circulated in Aligarh seeking donations, admit that this was going to be a very costly affair amounting to Rs. 5 lakh per Muslim and Rs.2 lakh per Christian. Indeed, religious conversion in India has never been a question of belief or only of belief.

The idea and discussions on the incident of re-conversion persist to play politics. Opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha alleged that there was an “explosive situation” in the country due to conversions. In reality, people living far away from the trouble spots seem to be engaged in completing formalities to get their subsidies for cooking gas before the last date rather than supporting or opposing conversions. Indeed, they are blissfully ignorant of what is brewing in the politics of religion.

One’s religion is not solely a matter of faith; it has political significance. India escaped the attempts of Missionaries at Christianization in the days of the East India Company by the firm stand of the Company that it would “result in political unrest”. The Company adopted the policy of non-interference in the matters of religion. British Parliament considered the proposition for wholesale conversion of Indians as “absurd” – a clearly political decision.

Religious conversion is not a social event in India. It has more politics than religion in its implications and is discussed as the politics of conversions. Mass conversions, in particular, do not take place on genuine change of faith. Ambedkar’s call to Mahars to convert to Buddhism, for instance, was a secular political call. His conversion programme was one concrete component of his two-fold secular approach to achieve a very secular objective, namely, to promote the welfare of Harijans and to obtain preferential, statutory, political, and economic concessions. Periyar EVR tried to repeat it in Tamil Nadu. Both had secular objects and intentions that were inextricably intertwined with politics and required political action. As expected, they provoked political reactions.

We are in an era of secularization of religion itself – a novel feature of the sociology of religion. This is a global development and takes different forms in different parts of the world from Talibanism to terrorism.

The furore over “re-conversions” has turned favourable to the BJP to seek consensus on a national “Anti-Conversion” law – a long-standing demand of Hindu organizations and Hindu religious leaders. They are worried about losing their numerical strength to well-organized proselytizing activities of other, what they consider as “imported” religions.

What happened in Agra and elsewhere is claimed “re-conversion” as opposed to the clients’ earlier “conversion” by taking back those forcibly converted. It is called “ghar vapasi” programme. In Virat Hindu Sammelan held in Mumbai, several speakers were reported to have spoken against conversion, but supporting the programme, thus distinguishing re-conversion to the Hindu fold from conversion to other religions.

Hinduism is, according to common perception, not a proselytizing religion. A person is born a Hindu and cannot be made a Hindu. There is no congregation; no one text; no common religious head; and no compulsory baptism ceremony. There is perfect freedom within this religion. There are even atheists among Hindus.

The phenomenon of religious conversions is not new in India. It has appeared as a result of political conquests, religious expansion, and as means of material benefits. Conversions on account of convictions are rare while conversions by fear, force and inducements abound. It is believed that the Hindu religion is no match for others in the business of conversion.

Article 25(1) of the Constitution guarantees freedom to “profess, practise, and propagate” one’s religion subject to “public order, morality, and health”. It is argued that complete ban on all religious conversions would interfere with one’s fundamental right to free speech and expression under Article 19 apart from directly violating the right under Article 25(1).

The right to “propagate” religion was added to the original draft of the Constitution as a Fundamental Right, but not without strong opposition from some members. It was finally approved, but the controversy surrounding the term “right to propagate” continued though members of the Constituent Assembly tried to distinguish propagation and conversion. In any case, the right to propagate is given to all religions.

There was no law against conversion in the British India. But, many Princely States had. The Indian Parliament took up the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill for consideration in 1954. It provided for a “strict system of regulating conversion”. The issue was about conversions by force, fraud, or material inducements. But, Prime Minister Nehru was averse to the idea not so much out of legal hurdles but out of likely political fall out of antagonizing minority communities. The bill was dropped.

So also, the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960 failed to get political support. Another attempt in 1979 to introduce the Freedom of Religion Bill was opposed by the Minorities Committee.

However, some State governments enacted anti-conversion laws. Among them are Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu. Most of these laws have made forced conversions a cognizable offence under Sections 295A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code.

The BJP-led Government at the Centre called for anti-conversion laws in all the States and at the Centre after a discussion in the Lok Sabha a week ago. Opposition parties are vociferous in condemning “ghar vapasi” programme, but are not willing to support anti-conversion legislation. There seems to be an artificial distinction between conversion and re-conversion. Political calculations based on “minority vote bank politics” standing in the way, there seems to be no way out of the situation.

The importance of number in electoral politics and the politics of building block votes are certainly working from behind.

Competitive offer of benefits being the crux of the controversy, there seems to be some point in the argument that our attention should be on development and related matters. Whether it is conversion or re-conversion, the event particularly when it is carried out on mass scale, involves material transactions far removed from spiritual teaching of any kind.

To end this unholy alliance of religion and politics, there is no weapon better than all-round social and economic development to reach a stage where subsidies, quota and reservation, and package of welfare schemes will have no takers. That stage is not in sight. –INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

By Sarkaritel December 24, 2014 14:04