KANDHAMAL AND CONVERSION
M. T. Cherian
Christians in Orissa, Karnataka and elsewhere are killed, tortured, their houses plundered and demolished, and churches burnt or destroyed, either by Hindu fundamentalist groups or by the groups instigated by or affiliated to Hindu fanatics. What is the reason given by these groups for the brutal killings and attacks? Conversion: forced conversion—Christian missionaries have been converting the Dalits and Tribals or the vulnerable sections of the society by and through allurement or force.
The minorities should understand the seriousness of what is happening to them in our socialist, secular democratic country. They should also know their duties as well as their rights. Sangh Parivar-related organisations, political parties as well as the Sangh media network unleash a relentless attack on the Christian minority for their work among the Tribals and Dalits. These groups attach the tag of conversion—conversion of the majority community to the minority religions—as the motto of all charity work by the minority groups. Is religious conversion only an allegation, or is it an issue? Are the charges made by the Parivar-related groups true?
The happenings in Kandhamal are an outcome of the increasing influence of Sangh Parivar in the region. However, some groups have blamed it as the result of aggressive conversion efforts by Christian missionaries. The conversion of the Dalits or Tribals of Kandhamal did not affect the communal harmony of the area for the past several decades and the locals were able to live together harmoniously till recently. However, the rise of BJP as a part of the ruling coalition government created a suitable climate for its family members—VHP and Bajrang Dal—to engage in unprecedented and strident anti-Christian campaign in the locality. The Sangh outfits always kept their cadres ready for an attack. Simple and insignificant incidents were turned into big issues to unleash violence and picture the minorities of the locality as intruders, and at times, anti-socials. A systematic attempt is on to tarnish the image of the minority community. In December 2007 the locality was affected by communal violence and it was orchestrated by the Hindu fanatics on the eve of Christmas. In 2008, killing of the VHP leader Swami Laxmananada became an excuse to unleash terror. The violence lasted for more than a month and caused large scale loss of life and property (even now the villages in the area are not safe for the minority communities and they are afraid to go back to their villages). These well-planned attacks have sent the clear message that Christians who undertake evangelistic work should leave the area, and the Christians should come back to the Hindu fold through re-conversion—ghar vapasi. All those who refused were eliminated. Thus the Sangh Parivar was aiming at a religious cleansing.
A Short History
Kandhamal became a separate district in 1994, named after the original inhabitants, the Kandha tribe. The Panas, a Dalit group, are migrants from some other regions, and became the agricultural labourers in the tribal land. The Kandhas were a merry making, happy going group, who left the land and property under the care of the Panas. The coming of the British to the area helped the Panas to come out of their serfdom, and that saw a sea-change in the social life of the Panas. The Church established educational institutions and hospitals in the area and the Panas became receptive to the Gospel. A Pana church got established very soon. However, the Kandha tribals had a different story to tell: they did not want the white man’s God to take the place of their gods, and they even dared to rise in revolt against the white man’s religion. Many of the Panas became Christians and got access to education as well as good jobs in the government. They, who were once migrants, got transformed to be powerful through their education and jobs, and attained respectability in the social sphere. Almost all the Panas started to live in good houses, owning modern gadgets which were the result of their exposure to the outside world, whereas their old masters—the Kandhas—continued their tribal life without access to anything modern. This economic difference became the cause for the ethnic problems.
The Panas’ demand for tribal status aggravated the problem; the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status would give them legitimate ownership of the tribal land. The Kandha tribals opposed this and this brought the Kandhas in direct conflict with the Panas. The Kandhas became anxious that their access to the land and opportunities would be drastically reduced if the Panas, with their better education, got tribal status.
The internal conflict between the Panas and the Kandhas became a good opportunity for the Sangh Parivar to get entry into the area. The saffron groups who had existed for several decades making vicious attempts could not attain much success till recently. What gave the saffron brigade a tough time was that the Kandhas were not charmed by the saffron-sponsored religion and beliefs; their tribal religion was much different and based on animistic practices. This situation convinced the Hindu fundamentalists that unless they used the conflict situations between the two groups as opportunities, their failure would continue. Apparently the saffron brigades came out as the self-proclaimed messiahs of the Kandhas. They forced the poor tribals to flaunt a Hindu identity: saffronised the Kandhas in exchange for taking up their fight against Pana Christians. Thus the saffron brigades succeeded in converting an insignificant ethnic divide into a sharp religious conflict—a Hindu-Christian rift crying foul about Christian missionaries converting the poor tribals.
The battle plan envisaged earlier did not materialise because there were not many suitable occasions that could be converted to significant issues. There was a less successful attempt in December 2007, which did not rise to the expectations of the saffron outfits. However, the murder of the VHP leader Laxmananda Saraswathy by the Maoists provided the much awaited opportunity for the Hindu hardcore elements to attack the poor Christians, blaming them of conversion by force and fraudulent means.
India And Secularism
The Constitution of India affirms India as a secular democratic republic which shall give equal freedom to all religions. The Constitution stipulates that the State shall consider all religions equally. However, in order to safeguard the religious minorities the Constitution has provisions for religious freedom. It is a freedom for the people to profess, practise and propagate any religion, including the freedom not to believe in any religion or faith. It is equal treatment of all, irrespective of their religion or faith. To be precise, secularism envisaged by the Constitution recognises the relevance and validity of religion in life. At the same time, it means the absence of State religion—no State patronage to any religion. It affirms that there is no preferential treatment for any particular religion, on any basis. It also means that India is not a theocratic country, accepting the rules of a religion to rule the country. India adopts an attitude of neutrality and impartiality towards all religions. The State is concerned with the relation between human beings, and not with the relation between human beings and God.
At the time of partition, there were more than forty million Muslims in India. In addition, there were more than ten million Christians, five million Sikhs and considerable number of Parsees, Jains, Buddhists and Jews. The founding fathers of the nation incorporated necessary safeguards for the protection of the minorities through Articles 25, 26, and 28.
While all religions are entitled for equal protection, the religion of the majority is not given any particular privilege. Thus equality for all religions was emphasised very much.
Article 25 guarantees freedom to profess and practise religion. The term ‘profess’ gives the right to declare one’s faith freely and openly. However, it should not amount to disturbing the public order, morality and health. The freedom of conscience is “a person’s right to entertain beliefs and doctrines concerning matters which are regarded by him to be conducive to his spiritual well-being.” In other words, freedom of conscience is the absolute inner freedom of the citizens to mould their relation with God in whatever manner they liked.
According to the Supreme Court, ‘to profess a religion’ means the right to declare freely and openly, one’s own faith. Obviously, a person has a right to practise his belief by practical expression in any manner he likes. The Supreme Court has also held that the term to ‘propagate’ means to “spread and publicise one’s religious views for the edification of others.”
Right To Conscience
The right to change from one religion to another is important. Minority religions are blamed by the saffron outfits for converting Hindus. If there is a right to convert, it is common for both the groups, and applicable equally to the majority and minority communities. While the saffron outfits engage relentlessly in re-conversion activities, in the name of ghar vapasi (home coming), they do not think of the right to change religion. However, if someone somewhere joins a minority religion, they make so much noise to the extent of making it a national issue.
Propagating one’s religion does not mean that one can preach his/her religion to those who do not want to listen to it. All have the freedom and right not to listen to the unwanted religion or speech. The right to freedom of conscience is absolute and no outsider can control that right. Therefore, no one needs to feel embarrassed about changing one’s religion, or the conversion of a person from one religion to another. Conversion is a reality from the very beginning and it is a universal phenomenon. The world religions must have started their history only through conversions. Hinduism got shaped as a religion through assimilation, annihilation, adoption and through a gradual process of centuries of conversions. Even today, what is happening with Hinduism? The West has proved to be a fertile soil for proselytising Hindu groups today. The praise singers of Krishna and the Rama praise chanters are constantly at work, adding westerners to their fold. What is happening in India? In the name of ghar vapasi, are the saffron groups not converting the innocent Tribals, Dalits and others? Hence, changing of one’s religion is not new to Hinduism, or, for that matter, for any religion.
Was not Buddha a convert, when he established a new way to attain nirvana, a way entirely different from ritualistic priestly Hinduism? Did he not accept people from various religions to his newfound faith? Was not Mahavira a convert by establishing a new way of ahimsa and truth? Was it not a thorough change of faith? Thus conversion and change of religion stand as universal facts. Amartya Sen affirms it thus, “Since there is so much discussion these days against Hindus converting to any other religion, it is perhaps worth remembering that arguably the greatest emperor of India was Ashoka in the third century B.C, (the main rival to Asoka’s claim would be from a Muslim called Akbar), and that Ashoka did convert to Buddhism from what would have been the then form of Hinduism.” Guru Nanak changed his faith in polytheism to a new faith and established the faith in one God who is the God of Hindus and Muslims. Thus conversion or change of religion stands as the basis for a new religion.
No one is born into this world with a religion. He/she is born into a religion due to the parents’ affiliation to that particular religion. Thus it is the situation that makes one to be a part of a religion. Most of the people continue with the religion into which they were born. Most of them blindly follow their religion, without much reasoning, only because they were born with that particular tag. The person concerned is not exercising his or her right to conscience. If any one feels that the religion, which he or she belonged to, due to the influence of family or friends, is not sufficient or adequate, or, to be more specific, it is not satisfactory to the desire of the soul, he or she has all the freedom to choose a religion which satisfies his/her longings, exercising the right of conscience. The right to choose one’s religion or faith is a fundamental right.
A change of mind to opt for a religion takes place by various influences. This may be through listening to a religious discourse, participating in the rituals of another religion, or seeing the life of an adherent of another religion. Whatever the means, a change of mind takes place after the person is convinced of the helpfulness of that particular religion or faith. A person is convinced to accept a religion mostly through understanding the faith and not through force. It is a voluntary act. This very exercise of the right to conscience makes a person to own a religion because, through it, a person voluntarily accepts a faith or religion and becomes a part of it whole-heartedly. Hence the right to conscience is the right to abandon and accept a religion, or the right to remain without a religion. This change in faith may lead the individual to a change in his/her public behaviour and change in his relationship with his/her previous religious or social group. Therefore, restricting the right to conscience—to choose or to opt for, to reject or to opt out of a religion—is a gross violation of the basic human rights.
Change of mind to opt for a religion may have another reason like the quest for upward social mobility or economic freedom. A person sees his present religious faith as a barrier or obstacle to upward mobility in the social realm, and he/she opts for another religion. Can it be termed as inducement? Did not Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, a well educated man of high standing and former Law Minister, accept Buddhism for the social and economic welfare of his own people? Did Buddhists induce these people? Did some one force them to change their religion? In fact, their social status and the practice of untouchability forced these poor Dalits to opt for another religion.
The Sangh Parivar blames the minorities of forced conversion. However, they could not produce any documental evidence for any forced conversion so far. Unfortunately, the saffron outfits forcibly reconvert the Tribals and Dalits of Kandhamal area, threatening them with dire consequences. Is there any such incident in which the members of any minority community threaten the members of any other community to convert? So far, there is no such evidence. Therefore the question remains whether ‘conversion—forced conversion—by allurement or induced’ is an allegation, or is it a real issue?
[If force was used to convert them, why are the people in Kandhamal not returning to the earlier faith, even when their lives are being threatened? Instead, they are prepared not only to reject the allurements, but also to forsake everything including their lives for their new found faith -Ed].
A section of citizens are stigmatised and labelled as converting the majority community to their religion. All the works of charity are labelled as inducements for conversion. A section of the majority community relentlessly attacks the minority community as anti-nationals who work against the interest of the national solidarity. The allegations of the Sangh Parivar are not true. The charges of conversion are false; the attacks were planned well in advance and the Sangh Outfits were waiting for a suitable time. As they got an opportunity, they jumped on the poor Christians with the aim of an ethnic cleansing. The same thing could happen anywhere else. We have seen it in Karnataka recently. Strategies are made, battle lines are drawn and now the saffron gangs are waiting for a suitable opportunity. It is time to think and respond to the fundamentalist forces. It is time for us to make it clear that the minorities are not against national solidarity and the nation’s well-being.