Editorial: March 2009
About four years ago, saffron forces unleashed a reign of terror against the Christian minority in Orissa. The Government report on the incidents accused Christian missionaries of indulging in large scale conversions. The report was not tabled in the Legislative Assembly. The very process of inquiry was taken as evidence by organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad to make further inroads, till their campaign got derailed by division in its ranks.
Some groups in Orissa complained that large scale conversion was at the root of the disturbances and that the murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008 was only a trigger that set off the scathing unrest in Kandhamal since August last year. There are many who try to explain away these attacks by saying that Christians are involved in conversions. The terror and inhuman acts unleashed by Hindutva organisations in Orissa, Karnataka and other places are attempted to be justified as a reaction to "forced conversions," very much similar to the genocide in Gujarat, justified as a reaction to the Godhra incident. Chief Minister of Karnataka stated that the violence is a fallout of the conversion activities in those areas and the government would enquire into charges by pro-Hindu groups that Christian organisations were receiving foreign funds to carry out conversions. He declared: "The government will not allow forcible conversions. The Constitution does not permit it."
In 1998, when Christians were being killed, their houses plundered and churches burnt down, repeatedly in Gujarat, the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee urged that a national debate on conversions be held. In the wake of the continuing violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka, the BJP is again calling for the same debate-a debate on mass murders. Venkiah Naidu of the BJP has strongly demanded that anti-conversion laws be introduced in Orissa and Karnataka, though Orissa was the first State to introduce anti-conversion law in 1967.
Some churches and Christian organisations have tried to escape by claiming that only certain groups are indulging in conversion, and not they themselves. Some well-meaning Christians have also bought this argument and have suggested that Christians should desist from propagating the Gospel for a while.
Conversion is a matter of individual faith and any change of religion due to inducement or force is no conversion at all. The Church has always taken the stand that "while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating others' rights and religious sensibilities."
It is a matter of serious concern that the government failed miserably to protect Christians from the violence unleashed by the Hindu rightwing groups in Orissa for several months. The police remained mute spectators. Firm action by the authorities is necessary to restore a sense of security for the citizens. It is the bounden duty of the Government to protect the lives of the citizens, and not just debate.
Michael Pinto, Vice Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, stated after visiting the Kandhamal district in Orissa, that conversions had "really very little to do" with the problems of the strife-torn district. His report pointed out as follows: "Although the Freedom of Religion Act has been in existence for about 40 years, not a single case has been registered for forced conversion in Kandhamal. If indeed conversions by force or fraud were responsible for the feelings against Christians, it is amazing that the provisions of an Act designed precisely to address such conversions have never been invoked. It gives rise to the suspicion that conversion had really very little to do with the problem."
Christians are involved in the propagation of the Gospel because they are mandated to do so. Jesus Christ, before ascending to heaven, spoke to the disciples: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age"(Matt. 28:18-20). This is fundamental to the Christian faith.
According to available estimates, between July 2005 and June 2006, 14 Christians were arrested in Chattisgarh, 28 in Madhya Pradesh and 2 in Orissa; anti-conversion laws are in force in all these three States. There is not even a single person who has been convicted of forcible or fraudulent conversion by any court in the country in the last 40 years.
If anti-conversion law is the solution to the communal violence against the Christian community, why are Christians in Orissa being burnt to death in spite of the fact that anti-conversion law has been in force in that State for the last 40 years? Is conversion the real issue?
Christianity came to India many centuries before it reached Europe. Despite the long history, Christians are still a minority in India. Out of a total population of 102.8 crore, Christians numbered only 2.4 crore (2.33%) in 2001. If large scale conversion is indeed taking place, the statistics would have been very different.
A large number of educational and health care institutions in the country are run by Christians for several decades. If they were indulging in conversion in these institutions, the Christian population in the country would have been much higher. It is therefore evident that the allegation of forced conversion is not substantiated by facts. It is only a pretext.
The bogey of forced conversions in reality exposes the true intentions of the Sangh Parivar. The activities of the Parivar are only intended to enforce the vision of Golwalkar who said, "The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment- not even citizens' rights."
A BJP legislator in the Orissa Assembly recently remarked that those who felt apprehensive about the violence "could go to Italy, Australia or Kerala to celebrate Christmas." However, Shashi Tharoor wrote: "To suggest that a Hindu becoming Christian is an anti-national act insults the millions of patriotic Indians who trace their Christianity to more distant forbears. It is also an insult to the national leaders, freedom fighters, educationists, scientists, military men, journalists and sportspersons of the Christian faith who have brought so much glory to the country through their actions and sacrifices."
In this context, it is necessary for every one to know that the Constitution bestows on every citizen the right to profess, practise and propagate any religion of their choice. Article 25 of the Constitution states that, "Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion."
Before the Constitution was enacted, the Constituent Assembly discussed this matter threadbare. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, T. T. Krishnamachari said: "Objection has been taken to the inclusion of the word 'propagate' along with the words 'profess and practise' in the matter of religion. The fact that many people in this country have embraced Christianity is due partly to the status that it gave to them. Why should we forget that particular fact? An untouchable who became a Christian became an equal in every matter along with the high-caste Hindu, and, if we remove the need to obtain that advantage, apart from the fact that he has faith in the religion itself-well, the incentive for anybody to become a Christian will not exist."
During his speech in the Constituent Assembly, K. M. Munshi stated, "I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of conscience has to be recognised. The word 'propagate' in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences."
Such words of the founding fathers of our country indicate an open-mindedness and liberalism, which is at the heart of democracy. They also acknowledged the inherent inequalities of the Hindu faith, which cause many to look for alternatives. The famous words of Ambedkar are very relevant in this context: "I was born a Hindu, but will not die one."
The Supreme Court has held that "Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to every person, and not merely to the citizens of India, the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion…It is immaterial also whether the propagation is made by a person in his individual capacity or on behalf of any church or institution…"
During the recent elections to the State Assembly in Madhya Pradesh, a Christian has won from Jhabua, a hotbed of violence against the Christian community not so long ago, in the face of sustained 'Ram Vs Rome' campaign. This victory of the Christian candidate Xavier Meda is surprising.
The election campaign in this constituency had taken a blatant communal tone with the distribution of pamphlets that tried to drive home the 'Rome connection' of Christians. The opponents of Meda spread canards like the arrival of hundreds of missionaries to campaign for him and the free flow of money from Rome. The district chief of BJP claimed, "A lot of money came from abroad. They distributed liquor, but we could not. Finally, what matters in a tribal and backward region is liquor and meat, and not religion." Christians should not be deterred by the atrocities being perpetrated, under one pretext or the other. We should deem it a privilege to present the Gospel. We should boldly present the uniqueness of Christ to our fellow citizens without any grudge to those who indulge in violence; this should not prevent us from seeking justice and the assistance of the law and order machinery of the Government, as citizens of this country.