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Indians split over politics of proselytising

India’s progressive Constitution, written by the Western-educated lawyer Bhimrao Ambedkar and adopted in 1949, guarantees “freedom of conscience” and the right to “free profession, practice and propagation” of religion — enshrining protection for adherents of all faiths in what is a highly heterogeneous society.

India’s progressive Constitution, written by the Western-educated lawyer Bhimrao Ambedkar and adopted in 1949, guarantees “freedom of conscience” and the right to “free profession, practice and propagation” of religion — enshrining protection for adherents of all faiths in what is a highly heterogeneous society.

But India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the right-wing organisations at its base, have long worried about Christian and Islamic preachers proselytising among Hindus — which they view as a conspiracy to alter India’s demographic balance and erode the country’s overwhelming Hindu majority.

Now, with the BJP in power, the country is gripped by a fierce debate on how far the country’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom should extend and, in particular, whether it covers the right to convert to a faith other than the religion of one’s ancestry and birth.

Mr Amit Shah, BJP president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted adviser, put the issue squarely on the agenda last week when he declared that the government wanted a new law against “forceful” religious conversions.

Opposition parties have reacted with outrage, arguing such a law would violate the Constitution and India’s character as a secular state. They have demanded Mr Modi take a public stand on the issue of conversions, which he has so far staunchly refused to do.

Debate over the legitimacy of religious conversion in India has deep roots. Mahatma Gandhi, father of Indian independence, opposed proselytising and people of one faith trying to convert others. But Ambedkar, born into a low Hindu caste whose members were treated as untouchables, saw conversion as a means of social elevation and a way to revolt against the discrimination of the caste system. Ambedkar’s 1956 conversion to Buddhism inspired about 365,000 former untouchables to follow suit.

ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS

Since the 1950s, conservative Hindu groups have clamoured for a national law to regulate religious conversions, which they argue is necessary to prevent the gullible from being coerced, duped or lured away from their ancestral faith.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence Prime Minister, argued that such a law would be a tool of harassment rather than protection, allowing the police to intrude into intensely personal matters.

In reality, India’s right to freedom of conscience and faith has been significantly eroded. Since the late 1960s, six states have adopted laws that ban conversion by “force, allurement, inducement or fraud”, sweeping terms that provide ample scope for the prosecution and persecution of proselytisers. In some states, conversions require official government permission.

State anti-conversion laws were upheld by a controversial 1977 Supreme Court judgment. These state laws also reflect the entrenched paternalism of elites who view most citizens as incapable of making well-considered decisions for themselves.

The renewed clamour for a national anti-conversion law comes against an ugly backdrop. Hindu groups linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing organisation that is the BJP’s ideological patron, have held a series of high-profile “homecoming ceremonies” to reconvert religious minorities back to Hinduism. The rhetoric surrounding these ceremonies paints followers of Islam and Christianity as “stolen property” that Hinduism is now rightfully “reclaiming”.

Such discourse has alarmed India’s religious minorities, who complain that they are being characterised as lesser Indians for not being Hindu. Some extremist groups have vowed to convert the whole of India to Hinduism by 2021.

These are troubling, potentially dangerous developments at a time when India is faced with a pressing need to revive its sluggish economy — a daunting enough task in itself. Before becoming Prime Minister, Mr Modi promised economic development and opportunity for all, regardless of faith.

Mr Modi’s critics have long warned that such inclusive rhetoric concealed a hidden polarising social agenda. The Prime Minister’s failure to vociferously defend India’s religious pluralism has reinforced suspicion that those fears were well founded. THE FINANCIAL TIMES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amy Kazmin is the New Delhi-based South Asia correspondent at the Financial Times.

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