Free Press Journal

Theological misinterpretation of minorities


FOR someone with strong religious beliefs, anything preached by another is a theological misrepresentation.

No Christmas carols were sung this month in Rashtrapati Bhavan for probably the first time since the celebration was once suspended briefly as a mark of respect for the victims of a major earthquake. The carols, Iftar dinner and a Diwali food festival are the only three religious events the President observes. But, President Ram Nath Kovind feels that carols violate secularism.

Religion is a highly emotive and highly politicised subject in India. It involves controversies that the Head of State should best avoid. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru objected to Dr Rajendra Prasad making an ostentatious public ceremony of inaugurating the reconstructed Somnath Temple. He knew that “the restoration of the idol would be a point of honour and sentiment with the Hindu public” as K M Munshi, then a Congressman who became one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spiritual ancestors, wrote.

The author of the Constitution, B R Ambedkar, made a grand political gesture in 1956 when he led thousands of fellow Dalits into Buddhism complaining against Hindu prejudice. Ambedkar’s conversion would have been far more explosive if he had become a Muslim or even a Christian. Hindus see those as rival faiths whereas benign Buddhism is regarded as almost a branch of Hinduism. It presents no threat. Even so, he might have fallen foul of the Freedom of Religion Bill introduced by the Janata Party MP, Om Prakash Tyagi, which never became law. The measure followed hard on the heels of the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, which sought to make conversion through “force”, “fraud” or “inducement” a criminal offence. The punishment was a year’s imprisonment and a Rs 3,000 fine which would be doubled if the convert was a woman, a member of the Scheduled Caste or Tribes or a minor. This sounded relatively innocuous, but as the prominent Nagaland MP, Mrs Rano Shaizo, put it, “The problem rests not on the professed aims of the Bill, but in the fears of its actual implementation. It makes conversion a cognisable offence and leaves its interpretation to an inspector of police.”

The rub, according to Christians, was the interpretation of force, fraud and inducement. According to the Bill, force included “threat of divine displeasure”. Fraud included “misrepresentation”. Inducement could be an “offer of any gift or gratification.” Distribution of religious books and articles could also be interpreted as inducement. While “divine displeasure” is part of the theology of most religions in one form or the other, its improper use is covered by Section 508 of the Indian Penal Code. For someone with strong religious beliefs, anything preached by another is a theological misrepresentation.

An Arya Samajist and former Jana Sangh member but never of the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh, Tyagi maintained that his Bill “aimed to protect all the minorities, including those belonging to minority religions. This gives them protection against forcible conversion by misguided elements of the majority at some future date should such a possibility ever arise.” He thought the minorities “should be happy about the Bill” and claimed to support “the right of everyone to propagate his religion” which he argued was “a fundamental right.” As he also said, “Anyone can change his religion through his own free will. I have stated this very clearly in the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill.” He was surprised at the furore over his Bill which he couldn’t understand. “I’m a purely secular man and I am against communalism. The Constitution has given special protection to the Harijans and I want to give them dharmik protection as well. Nobody should exploit their poverty.” As for minority fears regarding interpreting the Bill, he said, “It is difficult to prove such things and distribution of books and religious articles is a part of religion.”

Tyagi said that he was also unable to understand why only the Christian community agitated against the Bill. “It means they are accepting they are doing forcible conversion.” Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains didn’t participate in the protests although the Kerala Muslim League did accuse the Centre of in effect withdrawing minority rights. The Janata Party leader, Madhu Limaye, also opposed the measure. Even Morarji Desai, the prime minister, wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter. But for all the uproar, Tyagi’s Bill didn’t really break new ground. The Supreme Court had upheld similar laws in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh enacted in 1967 and 1968, and Tyagi only sought to extend such provisions to the entire country. What was disturbing was that the move synchronised with attacks on Christian missions in Bihar and the destruction of churches in Arunachal Pradesh. Mother Teresa, as she was then, was refused permission to travel to Arunachal.

More recently, Jharkhand, created in 2000 as a homeland for Adivasis, but paradoxically dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has taken up the cause. Its stringent anti-conversion law is titled in characteristic double-speak, the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017. In 2005, Jharkhand adopted an anti-cow slaughter law, in spite of the fact that no Adivasi faith forbids eating beef. Now, it has made conversion in exchange of “allurement” illegal. Moreover, any conversion needs the state government’s permission. Although Christian missionaries were active in the region in British times, only 4 per cent of Jharkhand’s population is Christian. It’s the third popular religion, following the indigenous Sarnaism (an Adivasi faith) and Hinduism. The national figure is 2.3 per cent. So the paranoia about Christians and conversion to Christianity is entirely without basis.

But, perhaps, Jharkhand does help to explain why politicians are so neurotic on the subject and whip up lumpen passions. The development work the missionaries did means Christian Adivasis are better educated and more socially aware than others. The government long ago deprived them of the quotas and reservation privileges granted to all the Scheduled Tribes. According to Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand’s chief minister, Raghubar Das, is also accused of penalising Christian tribals because their education enables them to raise awareness against the government’s attempts to grab community land and appropriate designated public forests.

Attempts were made to restrict conversion even in Nehru’s time when two Bills tried to clamp down on the freedom to change one’s faith. Nehru opposed both, explaining how dangerous it could be to try to police thinking. Odisha’s Swatantra Party government’s Freedom of Religion Act was the first breach, with four other states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – following with active anti-conversion laws. The Arunachal Pradesh law is now in

limbo since rules were never framed while a similar law in Rajasthan hasn’t yet received the president’s assent. But, Nehru’s enlightened spirit is dead. What is alive and kicking is the intolerance he fought all his life, and which has now deprived Rashtrapati Bhavan of the pleasing ritual of Christmas carols that everyone irrespective of religion enjoyed.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.