Despite its majority in the Lok Sabha, this government, like the previous one, is regularly getting into trouble and unable to be productive. This is partly due to the statements and actions of Narendra Modi’s allies. I wrote about one minister last week. This week there were two things that brought trouble. One was the needless statement made by a BJP MP glorifying Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin. The MP, a sadhu, who has decided to become a leader, said the fellow famous for shooting an unarmed old man was a patriot. I say it was needless because everybody knows that this is the view of the Sangh — why bring it up in public when you know it is going to halt parliament, as it of course did.
Modi was firm and made the minister eat his words in parliament. However, the other problem may not see surrender from the government. It is about religious conversions. This is an issue that has long troubled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Usually it is Hindu conversion to Islam or to Christianity that the party is bothered by. This is even though the numbers of such conversions today are very low, and usually the conversion happens because of not belief but marriage.
This week the shoe was on the other foot and it was Muslims who were being supposedly converted in Agra, the former Mughal capital. The BBC reported that “some 250 people had attended a havan (a basic ceremony). Most residents of the slum are poor rag-pickers and many said they had been promised ration cards and other basic amenities by a local Hindu activist if they attended the event. One slum resident, Salina, said she had no idea that it was a conversion ceremony. “During the ritual, suddenly we were made to do what the priest was doing. One Muslim man was even made to hold an idol in his hand.
“After the ritual was over, the local activist told us that we had all become Hindus. We wanted to protest, but we were advised to keep quiet as we were told we would get a ration card and other amenities.”
Another resident Mumtaz, however, said that no one had forced her to attend the ritual and that all those who attended had done so voluntarily.
To me it did not seem to be a major issue but the Urdu press was aghast and angry. Inquilab, one of India’s oldest and most respected Urdu papers, carried an editorial with the headline “Jhoot, dhoka aur badtareen firqa-parasti” (Lies, betrayal and sectarianism).
The opposition was immediately on the offensive in parliament. The BJP responded by saying it was also troubled by conversions and wanted a halt to them. This was, of course, not where the debate was supposed to go. But the more the opposition holds on to the matter, the more fuel the BJP will get for its original argument, that all conversions are bad and must be regulated by the state, even though this necessarily cuts against freedom of religion. For this reason, it would be unwise of the opposition to make more of this issue than is required. My friend in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ashok Chowgule, sent out a list of statements Gandhi himself had made on the issue, including this one: “I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never be to undermine another’s faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and therefore respect for them. It again implies true humility, a recognition of the fact that the divine light having been vouchsafed to all religions through an imperfect medium of flesh, they must share in more or less degree the imperfection of the vehicle.”
He also spoke against proselytisation, meaning actively seeking to convert people. He said: “One sordid motive violates the whole preaching. It is like drop of poison, which fouls the whole food. Therefore, I should do without any preaching at all. A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon … The fragrance of religious and spiritual life is much finer and subtler than of the rose.”
The Indian Constitution has settled the debate and the law is clear. Article 25 gives all Indians “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.”
India is unusual on the sub-continent in having such a liberal law on religion and the opposition should keep that in mind when it attacks the government on this issue. It should not allow a single incident to become the reason to relook at the law.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2014.