2011

Course: Religion and society in India Assignment – 1 : Tutorial Submitted to the Course Teacher: Prof. Susan Viswanathan

‘THE PROSELYTISATION OF THE MARGINAL GROUPS AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’
(With a reference to the Kandhamal riots in Odisha) Submitted by: Prafulla kumar Rana III semester, sociology, CSSS SSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Abstracts: The various conflicts regarding religion and the religious conversion are now major issues in the contemporary Indian society and also in the Indian state. It has become more volatile after the riots that erupted in the Kandhamal region in Odisha in 2007-08. It was the first riot of a different kind in which the Hindus and the Christians were engaged violently with each other over the issues of conversion and the reconversion. The wide range of conversion that is being carried out by the Christian evangelists and the counter process of reconversion by the Hindu activists had made the area a hot bed for violence. And the fuel added by the nefarious politicians as well as the improper management of the state govt made the simmering tension to snowball into a full-fledged riot. Like other riots, it also took a huge toll of lives. Women were raped, houses were torched, and thousands were rendered homeless. Both the sides were affected. Though the initial provocation was started by the Christians the Hindu were to be blamed at the end. The riot was later termed as the ‘Hindu violence against the minority Christians’. It is a matter of concern that the real problem is not taken care of. Rather the process of conversion is refuted on the ground of the welfare work by the missionaries in those areas which help the local people to raise their living standard. But the dark side of the association of the welfare activities with the religious institution is not questioned. The organised mission to strategically convert is often overlooked and it is protected by waving the weapon of secularity of the Indian state as well as the religious freedom which allows everyone to freely practise and profess any religion. It is the travesty that while reconversion is sharply condemned at the same time conversion is taken silently. It is evident and thus has to admit that reconversion is there only because of the conversion. By taking the shield of ‘Religious Freedom’ and ‘Secularity’ the real intention and modus operandi of the missionary groups should not be blanketed. It is because, conversion is not only the conversion of faith, religion or approach of spiritual satisfaction rather it is also the social conversion which has the severe consequences on the state as well as upon the society. This paper deal with the agenda to delink the process of conversion, carried out by the Christians proselytisers, from the religious right offered by the Indian constitution and the notion of secularity of the Indian state moreover it exposes the strategic methods deployed and carried out by the missionary forces in India.

Contents:

Chapters 1. Chapter 1: Introduction 2. Chapter 2: An overview of Kandhamal violence of Odisha 2.1: The problem 3. Chapter 3: The marginals, their religious identity and conversion: 3.1 The tribals 3.2 The Dalits 3.3 Is the marginality of the dalits enough for conversion? 3.4 Why conversion going on in tribal areas only? 4. Chapter 4: The role of these missionaries: 5. Chapter 5: Religious freedom and conversion 6. Chapter 6: The Conclusion

Pages 1 2 3 4 4 4 5 5 6 7 8 10

7. References

Chapter 1: Introduction: Conversion is not a new phenomenon in India as most part of its history is replete with it of various types. The Aryan came to the Indian sub-continent and they either chased down the native Dravidians or supposed to have converted. Similar thing is believed to have taken place in the emergence and spread of the Buddhism. As the historians opine, the Buddhism was born out of the Hindu fold in rebellion to the Brahminical tyranny. So it grew upon the converted Hindus (Vaisnavites and Saivaites). Exactly the same thing happened to the spread and emergence of the Jainism which followed suit the contemporary Buddhist approach. The later periods witnessed the attack of the Muslim invaders who managed to get a strong hold of India by ruling over it. Then they embarked upon an indiscriminate conversion of the Hindus into the Islam. Lastly the Europeans of Christian origin landed here and after making their ground as rulers they also started converting the native Hindus into Christianity in a systematic manner. All this bear the testimony of conversion that had been taking place in the Indian civilisation. Even after the attainment of independence and the adoption of secular principle, the story of conversion has not altogether stopped here. It is still going on somewhere in the inaccessible tribal regions of the interior territories of the country and also in the marginal areas of the Hindu religion i.e. in the dalit sections of Hindu fold. This religious conversion has become the subject of passionate debate in contemporary India. From the early 20th century onwards, it has surfaced again and again in the political realm, in the media and in the courts. During the last few decades the dispute has attained a new climax in the plethora of newspapers, journals, and books whose pages have been devoted to the question of conversion. The participants in the debate seem to agree on one thing only: the gap between the different views on conversion is unbridgeable it is because the Christians held the view that conversion is a part of religious act which is meant to spread the faith whereas the Hindus take it as an act of violence as it disturbs the native religion and its society. If it is carried out by using force, allurement and taking the advantage of the weakness of the converted then it is altogether to be protested. These kind of antagonistic views have flared up the situation. The Indian Constitution addressed the issue of conversion more than half a century ago. In Article 25, it is stated that "all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion". Soon, it would turn out that this piece of legislation was not able to resolve the problems around conversion in Indian society. In 1954, the Madhya Pradesh state government launched an inquiry into the proselytising activities of foreign missionaries, which resulted in a report that recommended legal restrictions on conversion1. In the next decade, the Orissa government endorsed a
1

The Justice Niyogi commission was instituted in the year of 1954 and it put its submission in 1956, which recommended that there is indiscriminate process of forcible conversion going on and it should be stopped forthwith. It also came out with a number of suggestions for the govt. to tackle the conversion.

Page | 1

Freedom of Religion Act that put such recommendations into practice. Other states would follow. Recently, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance added more confusion. The ensuing polemics demonstrated that the question of conversion is still as contentious as it was before. The positions in the dispute are clear. On the one hand, there are those who plead for a ban on conversion, because it disturbs the social peace in plural India. This group consists mainly of Hindus. The aversion towards the proselytising drive of Christianity is widespread among various Hindu groups – from the spokesmen of the Sangh Parivar to the moderate Gandhians. On the other hand, there are those who argue that conversion is a fundamental human right, which should be protected in any democracy. Generally, the proponents of the right to conversion are Christians and secularists. In spite of the clarity of these two positions, the issue have remained unchanged throughout the previous century; the debate has not seen significant progress. The discussions are still governed by feelings of mutual incomprehension, unease, and resentment. The situation is even growing worse today. The encounter between the Hindu traditions and the proselytising religion of Christianity is more explosive than ever. Little is needed, these days, for hostile feelings to flare up. In recent years, a violent protest towards the proselytising activities of Christians has surfaced in Kandhamal, Odisha which later took the shape of a riot. Though the issue of Conversion seems to play a crucial role in these conflicts, without stopping, it is still being defended on the plea of religious right. Thus, there is an urgent need to understand why the nation is disturbed by the issue of religious conversion and why it is still being carried out and even perfectly defended. Chapter 2: An overview of Kandhamal violence in Odisha A few years ago, there was a communal violence in the Kandhamal region of Odisha which shook the whole world. It took place between the two groups of the Hindu tribals and the converted Christian dalits. Though the bone of contention is traced to the land dispute of the area yet the main and the immediate reason was the religious conversion and the counter process of re-conversion carried out by the Christian missionaries and the Hindu fundamental groups respectively. Kandhamal is a tribal dominated and underdeveloped district which is situated in the western part of Odisha. It has almost one fourth population as Christians and the rest are Hindus. The number of Muslims is very few. 52% of the total population are tribals whereas 17 % are dalits and the rest 31% are the business class people including Brahmins and the migrant govt. workers2. Almost sixty percent of the total land is covered by the forest and the rest forty percent is cultivable and residential land. Fifty six percent of the non-forest
2

The Census Report – 2001

Page | 2

area belongs to the tribal whereas the rest thirty five percent of the land belongs to the other high caste and business class people. Only nine percent of the land is with the local dalits. This is supposed to one of the major cause of contention between the local Hindu tribes and the converted dalits. It is because, those dalits convert to Christianity; make churches to worship. Since they don’t have enough land, they illegally build churches over the land of the tribal groups. Another thing which adds to woe is that these dalits live in groups, but not in a scattered manner which helps them to intimidate the tribals who live sporadically in the hilly terrain. The dalits convert into Christianity and even don’t let anyone know about it. It is because of the existing land law of Orissa Regulation Act 1956 3. It clearly states that the tribal land cannot be sold and purchased and if anyone found to be in possession of this land then they will be thrown out of the land and will also be liable to legal action. So if they would fight case in court then they know they can never win. That’s why the converted Christian dalits want the tribal status. Again most of the conversion go unnoticed because of the fear that they don’t want to lose the special provisions they enjoy being in the SC category. Once they convert into Christianity they have to lose these special facilities. This was the main thing that the tribal people were opposed to. Apart from these disputes, there are some core issues relating to the conversion and reconversion. The area has a number of 927 churches4 which is scattered all over the Kandhamal district and most of the churches are built over the illegally usurped land from the tribals. The missionaries are engaged in indiscriminate conversion to the dalits and to the tribals as well. It is not going well by the Hindu organisations. These are RSS, VHP etc. they were trying to get back those have already been converted into Christianity. Among those persons, Swami Laxamanananda was important. He was trying his best out there since last 10 years before his death. He was reconverting the converted tribals back into Hinduism. It didn’t go well with the dalit Christians who looked upon Swami laxamanananda as their enemy. They also attacked him a number of times but one day in the December 23, 2008 he was killed by some unknown attackers who were supposed to be the Christian dalit youths at that time. And this incident created the most hated riot between the two religions; Hinduism and Christianity for the first time in India. 2.1: The problem Just taking a brief look at the Kandhamal riot, we are confronted with a number of issues those need a satisfactory and immediate answer. First of all it is to be explained that why there is the religious conversion? Some intellectual and the religious person argue that
3

This act strictly prohibits the transfer and selling of Tribal land in tribal areas. It moreover states that in case any non-tribals are found to be possessing tribal land should be immediately ejected from the land and it would be restored to the tribals 4 Source: the interim report published by the four member committee such as Sardar G.S Gill, additional general advocate of Rajasthan, P.C Dogra, DG of police, Chandigarh, Nafissa Hussain, former member of national commission for women, Mumbai, Captain M.K Andhare, social activist, Gujarat, and Ramkishore Passari, social engineer, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. This report was published after the fact finding mission into the Kandhamal riot on 7-2-2008

Page | 3

conversion is an act of religious freedom and anyone can freely possess and profess any religion of their choice. But here it is argued that though the Indian constitution has offered the right to freedom of religion it clearly mentions that these rights are to be exercised in compliance with the public order, but not by disturbing it. Another issue is to be focussed that the large number of missionary churches and their massive act of proselytisation. Is it right to engage in the act of conversion on the pretext of freedom of religion and secular feature of the country? It is accepted by the intellectuals that the marginal groups are converting themselves or show their willingness to be converted into Christianity because of their low status and the ill-treatment from the upper castes. But it has also been proved that these converted people, be it Christianity or Islam, they are suffering from the same problem of ill treatment from the higher people of their newly converted religious group. These are some of the problems that have been raised and given appropriate answer in this paper.

Chapter 3: The marginals, their religious identity and conversion: 3.1: The tribals The marginals here are the dalits and the tribals those are living at the boundary of the Hindu society. In case of the tribals the thing is different as they have their own religious identity. They practise totemism and worship the nature. They are neither in the Hindu religious organisation nor in the caste hierarchy. But in course of time they have come under the Hindu influence. This is an age-old process as the tribals are supposed to be included in the Jagannath Hindu fold. They are believed to be the earlier worshipers of the god Jagannath5. In the temple also they have been appointed as cook for the lord. This is an assimilation process which is designed to include in the Hindu fold. But the fact is that it is not new rather old as the Jagannath culture itself. This creates the sentimental affiliation for the Hindus that the tribals are more or less included in the Hindu fold. This creates the problem when they are converted by the alien Christ missionaries into Christianity. The people of Hindu fold feel it and take it as an inroad upon their religion. 3.2: The dalits Similar is the case of the dalits. They are in the Hindu fold and they have also accepted it that they are Hindus. No matter how they are treated discriminately and kept at distance from the mainstream of the Hindu religion, they whole-heartedly profess Hinduism. Of course in the time of transition, they have become more aware about their seclusion and discrimination by the higher caste groups. They have also started revolting against it. Sometimes it was observed that due to this reason some sections of the minority dalits have changed their religion en masse and converted into Christianity and other religions. The
5

Biwamoy, Pati , 2001

Page | 4

biggest example of such conversion is the mass conversion of the dalits led by Dr. B.R Ambedkar. Their existence in the periphery is really miserable as they are not allowed into the temple for worship and in the social field also they are subjected to a lot of regulations and exploitations6. This suppression of the dalits by the dominant castes prompts them to shed their religion and take up another to emancipate from the caste exploitation of the Hinduism. 3.3: Is the social marginality of the dalits in Hinduism enough for conversion? Now the issue of discussion is whether it is the sufficient a cause of their conversion as most of the intellectual contributions and argument goes in favour of it. According to them the oppressed class of the dalits change their religion change their religion just for two reasons. 7 The first one is to let them free from the tentacles of the oppressing Hindu caste hierarchy and the second one is nothing but the notion of taking revenge on the tyrannical Hindu order. It is agreeable to some extent but this is not the sufficient explanation to the dalits and the tribals those are being converted into Christianity in the hilly terrains of the interior territory of the country. This is because these dalits are not the victim of Hindu caste oppression. The reason is that the Hindu caste hierarchical order has not its reach deep into the tribal hilly areas. In context of the Kandhamal area, it is evident that most of the other Hindu high caste people are the migrants and constitute a small percentage. Moreover they are aggregated in the town areas and they dint have access into the villages of the dalits. So the explanations of conversion in revenge and the oppression by the high castes are not at all plausible here. Had it been the dalits residing in the coastal areas of Odisha would have been the first to get converted into Christianity. 3.4: Why conversion going on in tribal area? The dalit population in the coastal area is much larger in comparison with the dalit population of the western hilly area. And besides that in the coastal area the high castes have a strong hold in the society. All the exploitations and the oppressions take place here. Here the dalits are not the one to be touched and they are not allowed into any religious institutions. They are even not allowed to use directly the public places and not even allowed to wear shoes in front the high castes and even they are not allowed to talk in a loud voice. Here the argument is that if these two previous propositions are taken to be the causes of the conversion of the dalits into Christianity then these dalits residing in the coastal areas would have all been converted. But instead of that the act of conversion is very negligible in this area compared to the concerned tribal area. This forces us to rethink the strategy and process of conversion going in those areas.

6

2001, The Dalit Situation in India Today by John C. B. Webster 7 Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover (2005)

Page | 5

Chapter 4: The role of these missionaries: If we take the above arguments into consideration, then the role these missionaries is sceptical in these regions where they are carrying out their mission of proselytisation. These missionaries and also the churches are running by the funds transferred from overseas countries8. These churches once settled there with or without the permission of the local govt. start their work. It is the most elusive fact that these do seem to be working for the local tribals and the local downtrodden lower caste dalits who are supposed to be marginalised by the larger Hindu society. They at the outset build schools, medicals and community centres etc. apart from that they also start giving credit to the local residents. It’s done for the betterment of the people living in that area as mostly such kinds of areas are not even accessible by the govt. itself. These areas really do lack proper health facilities, sanitation, food security and generally a minimum standard of living. But it is quite unfortunate that the govt. fails to fulfil the basic requirements. The development works undertaken by those church authorities are highly commendable as they can contribute in a large way in the betterment of these neglected sections of dalit and tribals in those hilly areas. This is why they gain the support of the local people as well as the other intellectuals who nonchalantly lend their support to these missionaries in the case of conversion. They argue that there is nothing bad if those tribal people are converted into Christianity. They are providing them with every basic needs, schooling education, health facility and even credit in times of need whereas the govt. is callous to their problems and the so called Hindu society instead of assisting them to have those common essentials, have distance from itself branding them ‘lowers’ and ‘Impures’. Here arises one unexplained question whether these helps are preceded by some ulterior motives or are a kind of simple charity. Another important thing is that why there is the association of welfare activities with the religious institution of church or missionary? Why not through any charitable institution? The first proposition on behalf of this doubt is that if these missionaries are really working for the oppressed classes of the tribals and the dalits then why only in the hilly inaccessible areas and why not in the other coastal areas where the population of these oppressed classes is higher and the extent of exploitation is also very high. Another one is that all these beneficial works is done for the development of those people but why it is through religious organisations of churches and the evangelist missionaries why not through any charitable institution if the real intention is to carry out only welfare activities. These are some of the things which make the role of these churches and the missionaries doubtful. The hidden process of conversion starts through the existing welfare works. These people are provided with school, but in case they fail to deposit the fees they are approached and convinced that

8

The British Empire, colonialism, and missionary activity , 1991

Page | 6

the fee will be waived if they convert into Christianity9. Similarly they give loan and in case their inability of repayment they are told to convert into Christianity so that they can be exempt from the loan. This also happens in the medicals by the doctors and the nurses who work as evangelists from the hospitals in those areas. Chapter 5: Religious freedom and conversion The pro-conversionists often raise their voice against any law meant to curb the random act of conversion. some of these laws are the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam 1967, Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967, Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 1978, Chhatishgarh Freedom of religion Act 196710, Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible conversion of Religion Act 2002, Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003, and lastly the year 2006 witnessed two of such anti-conversion laws such as the Rajasthan Dharma Swatantraya Act and the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. The proselytizers and the modern intellectuals demand rights for conversion as they justify that the right to religion provided in the constitution empowers them to change any religion and accept anyone best suitable. But they don’t look into the hidden fact whether the conversion is done by force on has been accepted by the converted on his own. It is no doubt that the constitution has provided us the freedom of religion but it does not imply that anyone or any organisation will be engaged in conversion or create condition for such conversion. In its article 25 it defines 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.”11 The conversion taking place is not only the conversion in the religious realm rather it is also the social conversion which causes a lot of disturbances and conflict in the society as the example is the aforementioned Kandhamal riot and also a similar violence of the killing of a Christian missionary Graham Stenes and his two sons Philip and Timothy that occurred in a distant past in 1999.12 In order to curb such violence the state came up with laws which regulate the indiscriminate act of conversion. The first act of anti-conversion act was passed by the Madhya Pradesh govt. in 1954 on the recommendation of the justice Niyogi Commission. Similar act was also followed by the Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. These acts in general have made forceful religious conversion illegal not the consenting conversions. These acts define the ‘forceful conversion’ in terms of use of physical power
9

the report of Niyogi Committee, 1956 The law was adopted from the original Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam 1967 when the state was created in 2000. 11 Article 25, the constitution of India. 12 Graham Stenes was an evangelists who was working in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. He was supervising the missionary activities and was supposed to be behind the cow slaughtering that were taking place in that area. Later being angry with the activity of cow slaughter, Dara Singh, a native of U.P, killed him along with his two sons Phillip and Timothy by setting them ablaze inside a car in the area of Kendujhar district in 1999.
10

Page | 7

and threatening to cause bodily damage, excommunication otherwise the use of material inducement of both in kind and money etc. But it is unfortunate that doubts and questions are being raised against these acts to be pro-Hindu and anti-minority in character. Chapter 6: Conclusion: The current explanations suggest that the cause for the conflict is not to be located in the in some hidden agenda of the dominant Hindu community, but in the issue of conversion itself. It is because, conversion is not limited to the religious and spiritual field, and rather it is a social conversion where the demographic structure, the social relations among the converted and the non-converters takes a new turn. The whole social system is disturbed. In countries like India where religion is the identity of the people, the act of conversion cannot be accepted easily. It is agreed that the Indian republic after having the independence, has developed secularism, pluralistic environment and state non-interference into the religion of the citizens, but it has not given the absolute right to religion that allows the citizens as well as the non-citizens to convert the native Hindu citizens into Christianity. In the constituent assembly debates, different views were expressed during the quarrel regarding the question whether or not Article 25 of the Constitution should grant Indian citizens the right to propagate the religion. The Christian participants had very strong feelings about this matter. They repeatedly asserted that millions of Christians felt passionately about this right to propagate the religion. The Hindus involved in this quarrel, on the contrary, did not at all agree that belonging to a religion entailed a right to convert others. Purushottam das Tandon put it this way "We Congressmen deem it very improper to convert from one to another religion or to take part in such activities and we are not in favour of this and it is absolutely futile to be keen on converting others to one's faith". Nevertheless, they agreed to retain the formula about the propagation of religion, because they desired to stay on good terms with the Christian minorities in India. The debates of the last few decades have been variations on the same theme. On the one hand, there are Christians and secularists who insist that conversion is a fundamental right, which is part of the universal freedom of conscience "The right of an individual to convert to another religion must be considered a universal human right and should be vigorously defended by Christians and other religious leaders. No state, church, or institution should stand in the way of an individual's pursuit of religious truth". On the other hand, the Hindus say that conversion is an act of violence, which violates religious traditions and disrupts families, communities, and society in general: "Religious conversion destroys centuries-old communities and incites communal violence. It is violence, and it breeds violence". These different stances bring about confusion. Regarding the conversion on the plea of right to propagate religion, the following interpretation of the Supreme Court is historical. In a 1977 Supreme Court judgment, the chief justice A N Ray said “Article25 does not grant the right to convert another person to one's own religion. In fact, there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one's own religion because if a person purposely undertakes the
Page | 8

conversion of another person to his religion ... that would impinge on the 'freedom of conscience' guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike.” Conversion is not a right as there are rights to religion which allows any citizens to profess, practise and propagate any religion. The act propagate never mean to convert another person into one’s own religion as it also impinges the freedom of conscience which is also bestowed by the constitution.

Page | 9

References:
1. Robinson, Rowena and Sathainathan Clarke (2003) Religious conversion in India - modes, methods and meaning, New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2. Robinson, Rowena and Kujur, Joseph M. (2010) Margins of faith: Dalit and tribal community in India, New Delhi: Sage Publications 3. Biswamoy Pati (2001) Identity, hegemony and resistance: towards a social history of conversion in Orissa [JSTOR] 4. Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover (2005) The question of conversion in India [JSTOR] 5. Pralay Kanungo (2003) Hindutva's Entry into a 'Hindu Province': Early Years of RSS in Orissa [JSTOR] 6. Elst, K. 2001. The Saffron Wave. The Nation of “Hindu Fascism”. New Delhi: Voice of India. Volume I and II. 7. ‘Freedom of religion and anti-conversion laws, Vol-I’ by Saadiya Suleman in Law Review of Indian Law Institute. 8. Harish S. Wankhade, “ The political context of religious conversion in Orissa” 44(15) EPW 3338 (2009) 9. Elst, Koenraad ‘Towards A Real Hindu-Christian Dialogue’ 10. Deshpande, Satish (2008), Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge

Page | 10

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful