Voting with their feet – religious conversion as a democratic right

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Voting-with-their-feetVoting with one’s feet: to express one’s dissatisfaction with something by leaving, by walking away
More than 1 lakh Dalits and tribal Hindus converted to Buddhism in May 2007 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion, in what is considered the largest mass conversion in the country.

By Nivedita Menon

What business is it of any government if I want to convert from one religion to another? Why should I seek permission from, or inform the government that I intend to follow a different god or gods from the one/s I was taught to worship from birth? There is absolutely no justifiable basis for the various anti-conversion laws in India, every one of which should be struck down as anti-constitutional.

Recently, Godie Osuri commented on the paradox of anti-conversion legislations being named ‘Freedom of Religion’ Acts when in fact they entail religious unfreedom. And so they do. The Gujarat government has ordered a probe into the mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism at Dungarpur village in Junagadh district last Sunday (October 12). Why? Because under the state’s Freedom of Religion Act of 2003, it is mandatory for the organizers to have taken prior permission. Turns out that the organizers did in fact inform the authorities, who provided facilities such as an ambulance, microphone and so on. It is clear that this ‘probe’ is a belated and panic stricken response from the Gujarat government upon realizing how great the Dalit response was to the event.

Mansukh Vaghela, who converted to Buddhism along with his wife and three children, said “By this change, I and my family want to be part of a different society”.

He, like thousands of others, are basically voting with their feet. They want no longer to be part of a religion in which

Wherever I went, people asked me about my caste and I had to tell them, with a deep sense of humiliation, that I was a Dalit. My children are not allowed to take part in garba during Navratri nor are we allowed to enter temple in my village. Many refuse to give me work when they know I am a Dalit.

Said Aravind Chauhan

There are lots of sub-castes within Dalits and I was fed up with all that. I wanted to breathe the air of freedom by breaking those shackles, hence converted to Buddhism with my entire family.

These are relatively young men, both about 40. This means they were born around 1975, in the last decades of the 20th century. These are not people in their eighties! Caste discrimination and caste oppression are alive and well, in this the second decade of the 21st century, in case anyone was worried about their health.

The Liberal Hindu will at this point make two very reasonable sounding arguments:

One, that it is foolish to think that things would be any better in the new religion. Look how caste flourishes in Islam and Christianity, s/he will say; and as if poverty and general deprivation will be redressed by religious conversion!

Two, s/he will add, even more reasonably, ‘genuine’ religious conversion is fine, but not – most certainly not – conversions brought about by ‘fraud or coercion’.

The Gujarat Act puts it this way – to provide for freedom of religion by prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means.

What does ‘fraud and coercion’ mean? According to the Act,

“Allurement” means offer of any temptation in the form of: (i) any gift or gratification, either in cash or kind; (ii) grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise;

“Force” includes a show of force or a threat of injury of any kind including a threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication;

“Fraudulent means” includes misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance;

So – on to the first objection – nothing changes with religious conversion, so why do it? Sure, ask that question, especially if you also ask the question about what is it that needs to change in the religion from which the conversions are taking place on a mass scale. Asking the question is one thing, but it is quite another to legally and punitively prohibit people from taking the chance that the grass may be greener. It may work, it may not work, like most decisions taken by most people, including by the Liberal Hindu – but what can possibly be the constitutional justification for a law that prevents you from checking out the other side of the fence?

As for fraud and coercion. Of course, no decision taken under actual physical force or threat of it, can be legitimate. But nobody really believes that conversion ‘by the sword’ is an issue today. Nor could it ever have been seriously practiced in India on a large scale, or else Muslims would not be a mere 12 per cent of the population, and Christians less than 3 percent, after centuries of rule by rulers of those religious persuasions. (Goa is another story, and those debates rage fiercely elsewhere in Kafila). [1]

No, fraud and coercion refer to ‘material benefit, either monetary or otherwise’. ’Genuine’ religious conversion implicitly, is acceptable – which is understood to involve the spiritual transformation of an individual, on the basis of ‘knowledge’, both of the person’s ‘own’ religion as well as of the one to which she converts. Informed choice, in other words. Interesting argument, considering one’s original religion is hardly the best illustration of ‘choice- you’re simply born into it, after all.

But still, somehow, ‘one’s own religion’, despite its being purely an accident of birth, is to be adhered to at all costs. Dalits or tribals who convert to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the hope of, and attracted by, economic benefits – jobs, schools, health facilities; and social benefits – dignity, self-respect – are in this view, instances of fraudulent conversion. Pandita Ramabai and Babasaheb Ambedkar may be conceded as genuine, not by the Hindu Right, for whom they are traitors, but perhaps by the Liberal Hindu, who will nevertheless, not refrain from condescendingly pointing out that hierarchies of caste and gender continue to operate in all these religions as well, so the move is at best, misguided.

The unquestioned foundation of this reasonable sounding argument is the assumption that converting from one religion to another is essentially wrong, an act requiring justification. But why? Why is religious conversion essentially different, in a democracy, from other kinds of conversion? When rival companies bid for candidates offering higher salaries and better perks, inducing them to convert from one employer to another, why is that not fraudulent? When political parties attempt to convert voters by wild promises, when Naxalites are wooed back into mainstream society by the State, when political ideologies – of the market or of Marxists, of feminists or of the Hindu Right – attempt to convert with promises of redemption and threats of various kinds, both material and spiritual – why are all these not fraudulent?

And if by conversion we mean a total change of identity, I might point out that this is what a perfectly ordinary marriage involves for most women – change of name, in many communities even the first name, place of residence, way of life, and in general, a complete restructuring of their sense of self. In other words, conversions of different sorts are everyday experiences of modern life – some of these conversions bring benefits, others do not. Sometimes one actively chooses the conversion and takes one’s chances, in other cases, the conversion is thrust upon one through the force of social conformity.

My point is – why should religion should occupy a special place from all of the above, in a modern democracy? Not that I don’t know what the answer will be – religion is a matter of the spirit and not of crass materiality, it should be governed by different standards. In that case, why expect the state to intervene at all in this sacred realm? After all, even from the gods of their ancestors, people expect material benefits. What is the worship of Lakshmi all about, and students’ earnest prayers during examinations? Why not ask the state to enact laws against the performance of pujas and religious ceremonies in general for material benefit?

A puja hoping for better profits in business is “religion” – but converting to another religion hoping your children can go to school is “economics”?

For the democratically-minded who buy the argument against ‘fraudulent’ conversions from what I consider to be mistaken premises, here’s another thought. It is fundamentally anti-democratic to force people to retain any identity against their will, and especially one assumed by the very act of being born. Nationality, caste, religion or even sex. The possibility of change is central to democracy. We have no option but to respect a decision to change any identity for a perceived better future – whatever our opinion may be about whether that change will bring about the desired result.

Of course, the real reason for the Hindu Right’s obsession with religious conversion has nothing to do with protecting the sanctity of religion. The creation of a birth-based political majority is crucial for the project of Hindutva and for its definition of Indian-ness. If ‘others’ turn into the majority, the easy coinciding of Hindutva and the Nation falls apart. The two do not in fact coincide routinely, or else the BJP would have got every single Hindu vote. When Ambedkar decided to leave the Hindu fold along with large numbers of Dalits, who felt the most threatened? Not the orthodox Hindus, who thought it was good riddance. It was Savarkar and the modernist Hindutvavadis who reacted most sharply, understanding fully the importance of numbers for a modern politics of Hindutva. Hence their ever-increasing horror stories about galloping Muslim and Christian populations.

Set aside for the moment, that the possibility of the latter becoming a majority in India is not even remotely possible, my question is this – so what if Hindus become a minority one hundred years from now, or a decade from now, or a year from now? Surely the point is to ensure democratic institutions such that it will make no difference how large your community of birth is, because these institutions ensure that minority status is not a disadvantage?

The politics of Hindutva has actually successfully managed to make an 85 percent-strong majority community feel insecure about the strength of its durable traditions, unsure of the ability of these traditions to survive.

Congratulations. Even a thousand years of ‘Muslim rule’ couldn’t achieve this.-Kafila.org

*Nivedita Menon teaches at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory

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