India’s microscopic Christian community and its clergy may become “collateral damage” in an unspoken but very palpable competitive wooing of the majority Hindu community in the run-up to next year's general election, as well as the preceding elections to the state legislative assemblies.
The political trend can be seen in three states. Maharashtra is understood to be planning a law to criminalize conversions, while the Himachal Pradesh government is aiming to reverse a High Court judgment that earlier deleted some of the more vicious components of its anti-conversion law.
This notorious law forced citizens and their pastors to give a month’s notice to the state authorities and then await their decision before they could formally profess the faith. Despite the High Court ban, neighboring Madhya Pradesh now wants to incorporate it into its existing, ironically named Freedom of Religion Act.
In fact it goes a step further and wants the police to launch mandatory enquires into why a person wants to change his faith and leave the Hindu fold. Four year jail terms and 100,000-rupee (US$1,700) fines are in the offing for pastors who break the law.
In the 1960s, Madhya Pradesh was among the first Indian states, with Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh, to seek a curb on conversions to Christianity. Ruled by the BJP (Indian People’s Party), it has now gone entirely overboard on the Hindu-centric agenda of its ideological parent, the RSS (National Volunteers Association.) Their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has made it clear where his priorities lie, wasting no opportunity to stress his support for the Hindu heartland.
The mainstay of the ruling Congress Party’s political platform has always been a non-partisan ideology, with affirmative action for the poor, the marginalized, religious minorities, tribals and dalits. But it is no secret that Congress also harbors majoritarian elements which can surface any time the party has to seek the Hindu vote.
What complicates the politics of these moves against conversions -- and the phrase is generally understood to mean conversion to Christianity, and not to Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism -- is the focus on Christian preachers and evangelists.
Since Indian independence, Islam has not really been involved in proselytizing, with its numbers growing only through birth. There have been many instances of Hindus converting to Sikhism, while conversions to Buddhism take place on a mass scale from the ranks of the dalits, who are then called Ambedkarites or neo-Buddhists. As many as 50,000 have been converted in one single event.
RSS supporters in the tribal areas routinely convert animistic and Christian tribals to Hinduism, under what they call their Ghar Wapsi program, which translates as “homecoming to faith.” There has been no legal action ever against this.
In states where the police and the subordinate bureaucracy are known to be bigoted and partisan, anti-conversion laws can become extremely punitive. Human rights activists have often pointed out that such laws encourage the persecution and victimization of the Christian community, especially of the clergy.
The Church does not seem to have anticipated this. It has no thesis for a united pre-emptive challenge to such laws. Individual groups go to court, but it is not an easy process. Some sections of the Church, in fact, are quick to blame Pentecostal groups for inviting such laws by their provocative evangelization. Others seem ready to sue for peace and are already making overtures to the BJP: the YMCA feted Narendra Modi at a function in Ahmedabad last month.
The last time the Church voiced its anger was when then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called for a “national debate on conversions,” and the Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Alan de Lastic challenged him, pointing out that such talk encouraged violence against hapless Christians in the country.
It remains to be seen how the Church will respond now.
John Dayal is the general-secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.