Choosing My Religion: ‘Freedom of Religion Laws’ to Curb Liberty

Date:

PROF RAM PUNIYANI 

UNDER the rising dominance of right wing politics many Indian States have introduced Bills; ironically called “Freedom of Religion”, which essentially curb the freedom of religion. Most of these aim to prevent the alleged conversions. While our Constitution gives us the right to choose, practice and propagate our religion, these acts lead to intimidation and harassment of the minority communities. The proposed such bill in Karnataka (2021) is no exception.

The religious minorities, Christian and Muslims are the major target of these steps by various state Governments. Currently it is the Christian community which is the prime victim of these Acts. The Anti-Christian atmosphere has been created from last four decades in particular. The manifestation of this came in the form of attacks on nuns and priests to begin with and has been extended to the Christian minorities in due course.

One recalls the hacking of Rani Maria in1990s. The major and most frightening such act was the burning alive of Pastor Graham Steward Stains in 1999, along with his two minor sons. The violence picked up and later in Dangs (Gujarat), Jhabua (MP) and Kandhamal in particular major crimes started taking place. The propaganda was that the Christian Missionaries were converting the gullible Adivasis and dalits by force, fraud and allurement.

In the decades of 1970 the likes of Swami Aseemanand (Dangs), Asaram Bapu’s followers (Jhabua, MP) and Swami Laxmananand (Kandhamal, Orissa) set up their Ashrams in Adivasis areas. It was done under the aegis of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and VHP. Bajrang dal was an accompaniment and it was Bajrang Dal’s Darasing aka Rajendra Pal (currently in jail for the same crime) who was involved in the murder of Pastor Stains. These steps were taken by the communal forces to draw the Adivasis into their political fold for electoral purpose. This was accompanied by Hinduizing them through religious mechanisms of setting up Shabri and Lord Hanuman temples and by organizing huge Shabri congregations, in which RSS functionaries were a major presence.

The propaganda about conversion through force fraud and allurement does not hold much water. Christianity is among the old religions of India. One version of its being in India is that that St. Thomas first set up Churches in Malabar Coast in AD 52. It is since then that Christianity started here. Today the percentage of Christians in India (as per 2011 census) is 2.3%. This has also an interesting tale to tell. During last five decades this percentage is showing small decline. As per the census figures, Christians in India are: 1971- 2.60%, 1981-2.44%, 1991-2.34%, 2001- 2.30% and 2011-2.30%.

In the aftermath of Pastor Stains murder, the then Home Minster Lal Krishna Advani set up the Wadhva Commission of inquiry. This commission concluded that there is no increase in the percentage of Christians in Keonjhar, Manoharpur (in Orissa) where the Pastor was working. Despite these immaculate statistics the communal organizations through their propaganda have ensured that the ‘social common sense’ holds that Christian missionaries are converting. There is also a perception that these missionaries get money from abroad to do this work. One knows that all the money from abroad is channeled by FCRA regulation, i.e. through Home Ministry.

Initially the anti Christian violence was restricted in the Adivasis areas and villages, but now even the small cities and the Convent schools are also being attacked. We recently saw the attack on St Joseph school in Ganj Baosda in MP. So far the Christian mission schools have been a big favorite of the people as their reputation for good education is very well known. The Hate which has been spread has its own logic. In due course it has picked up and the Christian mission schools are now coming under attack.

While those undertaking the attack are the foot soldiers, the real people behind these attacks are those who manufacture this Hate and disseminate it in society. The communal politics believes that Islam and Christianity are foreign religions. Mahatma Gandhi writes “Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.” And then he goes on to list the faiths of India, “Apart from Christianity and Judaism, Hinduism and its offshoots, Islam and Zoroastrianism are living faiths.” (Gandhi’s collected works, Volume XLVI p. 27-28)

Taking it further one can say religions are universal; not bound by any nationality. In today’s world Hindus are spread all over the World. The communal politics or its pressure which is behind the introduction of these ‘Freedom of Religion” bills/Acts takes the ‘hate other’ phenomenon to a higher level. One more such Bill in Karnataka will definitely be intensifying the Hate against Christians and add to the divisive trends which are threatening our tradition of amity.

Even the notion that somebody is converting is a way to downgrade those who are converting. It can only be the ‘free will’ which leads to changing one’s faith. At moral, social and legal level we have a full right to choose our religion. It is this right which was exercised by the Chairman of drafting committee of our Constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedkar, who left Hinduism to embrace Buddhism.

Ironically while we are witnessing the attacks on Christian minority on the pretext of conversion, the phenomenon of Ghar Wapasi is looked at through a different prism. Just a few days ago Wasm Rizvi converted to Hinduism, became Jitendra Tyagi and that is being presented in such a positive light.

The scattered attacks on Christian prayer meeting and Churches are on the rise during last few years. Though the major attacks like Kandhamal are not there, the sub radar and noticeable attacks are aplenty and on the rise.

We do need to promote amity, accept that we all have a right to ‘choose our religion’ to create a more humane society and morally bound to respect the choices of all.

___________

Ram Puniyani is an eminent author, activist and former professor of IIT Mumbai. The views are personal and Clarion India does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.

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