By Richard Pimentel
"Should a civilised, tolerant society get into so personal a matter as the religious conviction of its citizens? After all, what is so perverse about conversion? If you exercise your fundamental right to preach and propagate your religion and someone, convinced by your arguments, comes over to your side how can anyone object? We are told that such changes cause unrest in society. But in public life we do not allow the unrest argument to prevent individuals from changing their loyalties or ideologies."
These questions were posed by Michael Pinto, vice-chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, in an editorial that he wrote in the Times of India back in October. The purpose of his article was to address the persecution of Christians in the states of Orissa and Karnataka in India, but especially the most recent episodes of violence in Orissa which has been going on since August 2008.
The violence started because of the death of the Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in August 2008. The Swami was a hard-line Hindu leader with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organization under the Sangh Parivar (SP), a family of Hindu nationalist groups. The VHP, along with other SP groups such the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal are part of the Hindutva movement in India. The Hindutva movement advocates Hindu nationalism in India. This nationalist ideology is buttressed by the following principles: India is the homeland of Hindus, Hindus have been persecuted by Muslim and Christian invaders in the past, and Hindu culture must be promoted and protected throughout India. One example of the latter principle is the promotion of cow-protection ordinances throughout India. However, the political and religious implications of Hindutva upon Christianity in India have been noticeable. The best example of this is the existence of anti-conversion laws in 6 Indian states. This legislation forbids religious conversion through fraud, force, or inducement and Hindutva groups such as the BJP (major political party) have been the catalyst behind the passage of these anti-conversion laws.
Despite the fact that Maoists have taken responsibility for the assassination and the police have determined that Maoists are responsible for the death of the Swami Laxmanananda, SP groups blamed Christians for the death of the Swami. The recent violence is not the only episode of Hindu violence against Christians in Orissa. There have been reports that the Swami-inspired violence against Christians in Orissa in the past. Nonetheless, some SP members have resorted to looting, burning and murdering Christians in the Kandhamal district in the state of Orissa. According to the All India Christian Council, the violence which began in August caused an estimated 4,400 burnt houses, left 50,000 homeless, 59 dead, 18,000 men, women, and children injured, and 151 churches destroyed. Currently, there are still 9,000-11,000 displaced due to the violence. Many have been allowed to return home if they re-convert to Hinduism.
Michael Pinto asks legitimate questions regarding the role of religious conversions in India. This issue has arguably a greater impact in India than in the USA because of the violence that some extremists have committed to stop the conversions. As the world's largest democracy, India's officials and citizenry needs to think about this. Dr. Hilda Raja, a Roman Catholic and a former member of the National Advisory committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference in India, argues that "Conversions must be banned to ensure peace and harmony. Let us give peace a chance-for peace and conversion cannot co-exist." The reasons for her argument are stated in the blog. However, the loudest objections against Christian conversion has been voiced by the RSS and other Hindu nationalists. They claim that religious conversions, labeled as "mental violence", are an offense against Hinduism. There have been accusations that Christian missionaries have forced some to convert and have induced others by bribing would-be converts with gifts such as motorcycles, bicycles, schooling, loans, jobs, and medicine as rewards for conversion to Christianity. In addition, Christian missionaries and clergy have been accused of denigrating the Hindu religion and Hindu culture by slaughtering cows and thus insulting their gods. The large number of Dalit (members of a low caste or, for some, outcasts in Hindu society) converts in India has raised the ire of Hindu nationalists. They argue that Dalits are wrongfully used by Christian missionaries in order to produce enough people to eliminate the importance of Hinduism in India.
The principal reason that anti-conversion laws were implemented was to prohibit forceful and fraudulent conversions. No responsible person supports converting someone to another religion with physical and/or mental force. Neither is it correct to make false promises and use bribes to prospective converts in order to win converts. However, it is equally immoral to employ violence to stop conversions altogether--which is the tactic utilized by some members of the RSS, VHP, and Bajrang Dal. It is a mistake to refer to the radical elements within these groups as true representatives of Hinduism for there are many Hindus who disagree with their tactics. But they cannot be ignored, particularly in Indian states where the BJP holds political power; states where the violence against Christians is not put to an end. Their principal strategy against fighting Christian conversion is forced re-conversion to Hinduism. These radicals employ an argumentum ad baculum (a fallacy committed when one uses force or the threat of force to compel someone to accept a conclusion) to correct the situation. They accuse Christian missionaries of employing force but yet they use force to re-convert. It is important to repeat that no forced or fraudulent conversion should be tolerated no matter whose adherents are guilty of this. But this does not justify burning homes and churches, displacing populations, and murdering converts and missionaries to preserve the Hinduness of Indian society. Moreover, the same radicals that cry out against conversion are not willing to address the rampant discrimination that has occurred and continues to occur against Dalits and women. Rather the focus is on conversion and the inhumane treatment of Dalits and women seems to be ignored. These criticisms are not directed to Hindus but are directed to Hindu extremist nationalists who will employ any means to stop the peaceful and legitimate (without the use of force or fraud) conversion of a Hindu to another religion, a right recognized as the freedom to practice and propagate one's religion as enshrined in India's constitution.