Read the parable of the Good Samaritan, who comes to the rescue of the much reviled Jew, waylaid and forsaken. The Samaritan offered succour, with no intent at converting. The Church today should revisit this parable to reorient itself in a secular and plural society.
The debate on religious conversion has assumed a global proportion partly due to the market-driven globalisation and also partly due to the new non-hierarchical, flexible and pastor-driven Church organisations, mainly emanating from the US. As global market forces pursue their economic interests globally, with what Karl Polyani called “evangelical fervour”, the new Church networks seek opportunities to appeal to the poor, tribal people, women, socially disadvantaged, diaspora and migrant workers affected by self-regulated market forces.
Being non-hierarchical, the new Church is also self-regulated but performs charity in education, health and even employment with a personal care in an unknown, impersonal and uncaring world of market forces. Its non-state actors pursue charity via an international civil society in the mercilessly market-driven world. As a result, new Church networks have become popular with the poor in Latin America, Africa and Asian countries. These new networks disturb religious equilibrium and strain the secular fabrics of developing countries.
In India’s plural society, the new self-regulated Church organisations have created an adversarial relation among diverse religions that have co-existed for many centuries. Since the early 1990s, India has witnessed many bloody conflicts between the Church and Hindu organisations. Most of these conflicts between Christians and Hindus are spread out from Dang to Bodoland and from Bastar to Mangalore, indicating a crisis of secularism.
Hindu organisations accuse the Church of its proselytising drives in tribal areas even as they focus on Ghar Wapsi through Suddhi (reconversion) of Christian converts among tribes and Dalits. Church bodies in a chorus deny any conversion by force or allurement and blame Hindu organisations for carrying out anti-Christian propaganda and for generating a fear that Hindu population is dwindling due to the so-called “imperial” drives of evangelism. The policy of Suddhi is seen by the Church as a threat to the future of the Christian population.
Thus, these raging debates between conversion and reconversion have produced not merely forms of symbolic violence (hate and fear) but resulted in actual physical violence. The killing of Australian evangelist Graham Stein and his two sleeping children in a shelter van in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha in 1999 demonstrates the xenophobic narratives.
Why did the conversion debate pick up its threads during the post-Babri phase of Indian politics? Such debates were an integral part of India’s freedom struggle. But, unlike now, the past debate was raised by secular political leaders. Gandhi and Nehru criticised the proselytisation campaign and mass conversion by Christians. In his autobiography, Gandhi says how his religion was demeaned by the old Church in its conversion campaign in his village. He wondered how the Church could disrespect Hindus, its neighbours, for idol worship. Whereas Jesus talks about “love thy neighbour as thyself”, the Church under colonial regime deviated from Jesus’ preaching by condemning its neighbours. Gandhi never approved of conversion or Tablig or Suddhi. According to him, Arya Samaj invented Suddhi in response to Church’s conversion drives. For him, Suddhi was alien to Hinduism just as conversion alien to Christianity.
Unlike the Congress today, Nehru criticised in public proselytising drives. He said he had no objection if an individual converted on his own moral conscience. For him, proselytisation signified a culture of intolerance and political supremacy. New secular India could ill-afford tendencies of religious minorities particularly the Church. Gandhi frequently referred to India’s religious groups as neighbours or friends. He said that it is not good to knock at the doors of our neighbours and talk to their religion disrespectfully. That is why Gandhi argues that the Christian conversion, the Muslim Tablig and the Hindu Suddhi must be given up.
The Constitution Assembly (CA) debates too reflected this spirit of debate. While debating on the right to propagation, most members supported this right and argued that all religions need this right as they have to propagate spiritual messages to their own followers in so long as they operate within public morality and order. Ambedkar wanted this right to be restricted to a private realm by introducing an amendment. But most members rejected this amendment as they felt that religious activities are organised in public spaces. So their respective organisations must know how to restrain themselves.
What is important is that there was a consensus among the CA members on the right to propagation. T.T. Krishnamachari said he did not perceive any threat to Hinduism from the Church in the future. He was a student at a missionary school which had not propagated Christianity among its Hindu students.
The near consensus in the CA on the right to propagation is very startling, even though this right was enacted primarily due to initiatives of Christian members. First, this right was made available to all, not just Christians. Second, the Church was already restrained in doing public work through education as Krishnamachari’s observations revealed in the CA.
Public criticisms of proselytising by Gandhi, Nehru and other secular leaders weighed down on minds of the Church leaders during India’s freedom struggle. The Church’s new role was also admired by the VHP leader Veer Savarkar. In the last public interview in 1966, he said that he did not perceive any threat to Hinduism from Christianity. No VHP leader, however, would be able to say this today. This is primarily due to the new evangelical forces, which, unlike the Old Church, are unrestrained and aggressive. The old Church refuses to criticise new denominations out of fear that it may be viewed pandering to Hindu right-wing forces. Many Catholic leaders know this and admit in private, though. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru, secular political leaders are also conspicuously silent on this controversy. Like the old Church during colonial India, the new Churches today have also corrupted the story of the Good Samaritan, who extends the charity of love to even an injured Jew on the road, without any attempt at conversion. While it is necessary for Indian Christians to get back to the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is necessary for today’s secular leaders to revive the bold criticism of conversion drives initiated by Gandhi and Nehru to save India’s secular fabric.
(The author is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of