Is conversion crime?

The Justice B K Somasekhara commission’s remarks and recommendation in relation to conversion, Dr Chidambara Murthy’s comment on conversion and Sangh Parivar’s statements on conversion treat it a crime. Several other incidents too support it.

Christian institutions and organisations are targeted alleging them the acts of conversion. Christians, who propagate their faith which has the constitutional approval, were ‘caught’ and tortured and handed over to police, booking cases against them alleging that they involve in conversion.

Thus conversion has become a debated word and considered as an act of crime. But the basic question one needs to ask is whether conversion is an act of crime? Or it is an opportunity for a person for transformation? Is conversion carried out only by Christians and Muslims? To do justice to the topic, one needs to look into the issue of conversion from historical and intellectual perspective.

From the beginning, conversion is a natural process of human history. Spreading a faith which may lead to conversion is not a crime, rather a historical reality. From India, Hinduism spread to Malay Peninsula, Cambodia, Annam, Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo besides the Indian sub-continent. Buddhism spread to China, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam from India.

Likewise, from Israel, Christianity spread to Europe and America and to the whole world. Similarly, from Arabia, Islam spread to Asia and Africa.  Even today the missionary work of Hindu organisations like Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCON, Arya Samaj and other organisations are found throughout the world. Likewise, many Indian Gurus and Swamijis, such as Guru Maharaj, Sai Baba, Rajaneesh, Nithyanandaswamy and many others have become the instrument for conversion of many non-Indians to Hinduism.

Constant feature

Coming to India, conversion seems to be a constant feature of Indian history. The Aryan invasion of India led to the conversion of tribal and people of indigenous origin to Aryan religion. The emergence of two religions, Jainism by Baghavan Mahaveer (599-527 BC) and Budhism by Gauthama Buddha (563-483 BC) led to religious conversions. These two religions tried to liberate people from the clutches of Brahmanical dominance of Vedic religion (Hinduism). There were mass conversion into these new religions which provided people new insights and possibilities. Christianity existed in India from the first century itself. In a caste-ridden Indian society where the low caste and out caste people were deeply discriminated found a new hope and existence in Christianity and that is why most of the Christian in India are from Dalit and tribal background. Conversions to Christianity in India by and large were voluntary and not by force. From 6th century AD, Islam started to emerge as a religion in India. Intensive missionary activities were carried out along the coast of Kerala and a number of natives also embraced Islam. With the establishment of Islamic Empire in India, Islam was spread throughout India and became the second largest religion in India after Hinduism.

Champion of conversion

B R Ambedkar’s movement against caste system led to mass conversion from Hinduism to other religions, mainly to Budhism. Ambedkar became the champion of conversion in the 20th century. On October 13, 1935, Ambedkar made the unequivocal declaration at a convention held at Yeola, Nasik. There he declared: “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.” In his address to the conference, Dr Ambedkar expressed his views on conversion in an elaborated and well- prepared speech in Marathi. Ambedkar’s view on conversion is still most significant as the Indian society still continues to experience the abuse of the caste system. (Ref. B R Ambedkar, “Why go for Conversion?”)
One needs to see why a person converts to another religion. There are two aspects of conversion: Social and religious or material and spiritual. Today the former is branded by the Sangh Parivar as ‘lure’ or ‘entice.’ But one needs wisdom to see the socio-economic dimension of conversion. Ambedkar has said, “...one must think of what is permanently beneficial. In my opinion, conversion is the only way to eternal bliss.” (Yasir Khan, 2010, p.1)   

Major factor
Social or material dimension are still a major factor for conversion. The main purpose of the Christian mission is to bring life where there is no life or human dignity to each and every person. The churches engage themselves in bringing life and light where there is despair and darkness through educational institutions, health care, ashrams, old age homes, community development and all such other services. However, it is not the intension of Christian churches to misuse the misery situations of people to establish their religion. Rather their service to the society is based on the spiritual tenants of Christianity. Jesus had said, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did to one of the least among you, you did it for me. And to the extent you did not do to the least among you, you did not do it to me.”

A spiritual conversion is one in which a person searches for the truth of life, explanations for the intricate questions about universe, morbid and metaphysical realities and then compares and contrasts different religions and at last the one that satisfies his mind and soul finds him. I would like to illustrate a few examples where Hindu intellectuals and truth seekers found new meaning and became Christians. Keshab Chanra Sen (1838-1884), a great leader of the Brahma Samaj, Nehemiah Goreh (1825-1895) from a Chitpavan Brahman family in Maharashtra, Brahmabandhab Upadyaya (1861-1907) from a Bengali Brahmin family, Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929) from a Sikh family from Patiala, Dewan Bahadur A S Appasamy Pillai from a Shaiva caste from Tirunelveli, Vengal Chakkarai (1880-1958) from a Chetty caste from Madras, Manilal C. Parekh (1885-1967) from a Jain family, T M Rama Rao from a Sarasvata Brahmin caste from Mangalore who was the Government Pleader and Crown Prosecutor of the District Court and the Chairman of Mangalore Municipality. Likewise, there are other examples where people preferred a particular religion other than the one in which he/she was born. It may be Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. Different religions provide their own particular interpretation of the ultimate truth and each religion has the right to propagate its perspectives and interpretations of the ultimate truth. It is a spiritual and ethical right of a follower of a particular religion to propagate his/her faith. Our Constitution also provides each citizen the right of religion with provision for propagation of one’s faith.

Hindrance to this would be a violation of human right. At the same time, each person has the right to opt a faith/religion of his/her own choice. Violation or hindrance to this option is also a violation of human right. Opposition to conversion shows only a fascist attitude.

Prof (Dr) H M Watson
Karnataka Theological College,
Balmatta, Mangalore.

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