Wednesday, 18 February 2015

CONVERSIONS AND THE SOUL OF INDIA



Due to the recent rise of anti-minority politics and violence, several of my columns over the last few months dwelt with, or at least tangentially mentioned, the issue of conversion and its faulty understanding within Indian nationalism. As things stand today in India, and also in Goa, this will, unfortunately, not be the last time I will write about conversions and its tortured relationship with Indian nationalism.

The reflection in this column is occasioned not only by the protests that followed the vandalization of the fifth church in Delhi, but also by some recent articles in the press that tried to tackle the issue of increasing communalization of the Indian public sphere. Let me make a particular reference to an article that appeared in The Guardian written by Aman Sethi, “‘Love Jihad’ in India and one man’s quest to prevent it” (29 January, 2015). Sethi talks about a Hindutva activist in Uttar Pradesh, Vijaykant Chauhan, and the increasing communal polarization following the Muzaffarnagar riots and the electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in the last Lok Sabha elections. One of the issues that were highlighted in this article was that of ‘love jihad’ and how Vijaykant Chauhan understood Hindu-Muslim couples eloping and/or getting married as “deception and forcible conversion”.

While Sethi’s article, written in the voice of the secular-liberal Indian and with a touch of sarcasm, tried to show the obvious error in the ways of Vijaykant Chauhan, the larger issue of how conversion to Islam and Christianity is seen as a problem within Indian nationalism was not explored. In other words, while the much sensationalized issue of ‘love jihad’ got center-stage, what was missing was an explanation of the source of the problem. Though there is a very serious problem with the activism of persons like Vijaykant Chauhan, one wonders if such naming and shaming in the international press would ever address the fact that there are thousands of communities that have been systematically kept away from positions of power and privilege and the cause of increasing communalization may be traced to this systemic discrimination in social, economic, and political spheres. What needs to be understood is that within the framework of Indian nationalism, conversion is understood as an essentially violative act that destroys the soul of the nation. Thus, the loyalty of Christians and Muslims to the nation is held suspect. Within this understanding Christians and Muslims are required to continuously prove their Indianness and patriotism, as I had noted in a previous column.

Christophe Jaffrelot, focusing on the politics of the so-called re-conversion of Adivasi Christians to Hinduism, refers to the debates in the Constituent Assembly on Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees the right to practice and profess any religion of one’s choice. Jaffrelot particularly refers to the comments of Loknath Misra, the then Congress MP from Orissa, who among other things stated that India would have been perfectly “secular” and “homogenous” if Islam had not imposed itself and if Christianity had not entered India peacefully by the back door. Such an understanding of Misra that was and is in no way confined to a small number reflects, as Jaffrelot points out, “a view of religious affiliation as a political act. It calls up an ethno-nationalist conception of religious membership: for an Indian to be Christian means that the person attaches himself to the Western world and is therefore a potential traitor to the Indian nation. This reasoning also applies to Muslims, who till Partition were readily accused of paying allegiance to Middle East-based religious authorities…[and since 1947], Muslims are also suspected to be Pakistan’s fifth columnists by the most militant Hindus”.


Seen from this perspective one can see how the issue of ‘love jihad’ and the vandalism and desecration of the churches in Delhi (as well as other churches in India) are connected. One particularly revealing instance was the protest that followed by some Christians in Delhi at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. This time around there was some ‘national’ media coverage of the protests. The Delhi police came in large numbers to this protest to disperse the crowd, bundling them in droves in buses. One of the protestors had a placard that said the following: “I am proud to be an Indian Christian”, and another one said, “Thank You Jesus I am an Indian”. These placards aptly describe what can be called as the ‘double bind’ of minority identity in India, wherein one is damned if one does, and also damned if one doesn’t, when it comes to adhering to dominant norms of Indian nationalism.

The question that needs to be asked is why does a community which is obviously the victim here, need to prove their Indianness, indeed profess it like it is a confessional faith? The reason is that both Christianity and Islam are even today seen as foreign religions. If one needs any convincing then he/she only needs to be directed to the incident wherein two bishops from the Vatican who were to travel to India to address a conference organized by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), were denied a visa. Under such circumstances, Christians in India – even if a wrong has been done against them – need to first prove their loyalty and patriotism to the nation. At a time when ‘ghar wapasi’ is demanded to purge India of all ‘foreign’ influences and culture, is it surprising that churches are being regularly vandalized?

In the final analysis, I would suggest, the solution of increasing communalization in India might not lie in pointing to the obvious errors of activists like Vijaykant Chauhan, but in re-defining the secular understanding of conversion in India. One needs to see the problems that Indian nationalism has with conversions and one also needs to realize that the concentration of power and privilege in the hands of a few might itself also contribute to the growing communalization. As I have argued previously, and emphasize now, a truly secular public sphere in India should ideally be one where there is always an emphasis on a greater sharing of power and privilege amongst the marginalized and oppressed sections of the society.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 18 February, 2015)

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