Common thread

Religions rely on people for their survival. Like political parties, they have a two-pronged approach: protection and expansion. They constantly protect their own ilk while simultaneously trying to expand their base. Each religion tilts towards one of the two.

Christianity has led the charge as the expansion specialist with Islam following close behind. Hinduism, to a large extent, has not really looked at expanding in this way, but has taken a bye-lane; it has co-opted local religious practices and deities. And, like Islam, it has used its own mechanisms to keep people within its fold.

The chink in the Hindu armour is the caste hierarchy, which makes it vulnerable. The undeniable fact is that all religions mark their turf and have individuals and organisations constantly looking out from turrets. Any enemy movement near the gates is repelled and anyone trying to walk out is held back. It is when people manage to break loose or when the enemy convinces some to join its fold does ‘war’ break out. The war here is not about the choices of the individuals; it is about the power of the two religious institutions.

Every now and then our newspapers erupt with stories about Hindus being forced to convert to other religions. In all these arguments, the axial word is ‘forced’. We are told that if a person really wants to convert, no one objects but that the problem is that they are actually being forced to do so. This is used as a convincing argument to place before us the magnanimity of the faith. This is fallacious; whether it is Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, all of them organisationally are selfish.

Any use of violence, physical or emotional, is to be condemned and this discussion hopes to look at this issue beyond this basic agreement.

Let us pause just for a moment and wonder about the idea of forced or coerced conversion as against conversion by free will. The very function of religion within society makes the voluntary v/s coerced argument extremely problematic. Religion addresses our emotional needs and provides security, stability and hope. It is this that every believer seeks. How is one to judge whether this has been satisfied or not? We cannot, and hence people’s choices cannot be easily branded.

The idea of free will is as complicated. Circumstances and habituations are constantly being heard in the background when a choice is being made. Therefore, how can one rip apart the two and confidently proclaim ‘conversions’ as ‘forced’? But it is this very same complexity that allows extremists of all shades to make any conversion seem forced.

Even the most commonly stated example of tribal or Dalit childrenbeing taken to church on Sundays, told stories, given food only to influence their parents to convert, is for me complex and cannot be universally placed under coercion. What is the context of these people’s lives? Is their own religion hurting them? Is the family drawing emotional comfort and hope from these interactions? All these have to be sensitively addressed, but will we listen to their voices? Behind these accusations, there is also class at work. When the poor convert, they have been ‘forced’; the rich and famous do so of their own choice!

Even worse is the new argument that Muslims are romancing Hindu girls in order to convert them. When a girl falls in love with a Muslim boy and converts in order marry him, should we even question this act? This argument does not seem any different from upper-caste families accusing a Dalit boy of tricking their daughter into marriage.

The issue for religious organisations here is not the human being; it is the fear of losing members, strength and power. I am not saying that Christian or Muslim organisations have a pristine record but to paint all of them with the same brush is an act of sheer intolerance. We forget that our Constitution allows every person to not only practise his religion but also to propagate it. The act of propagation includes convincing people of the greatness of their faith. If this leads to conversions, so be it.

But accusations constantly fly thick and fast. Let us not be drawn into this black hole; once we fall inside we can never get out. Worse, we will lose the ability to see people as persons. Irrespective of our belief system, religious or otherwise, we have to find empathy within ourselves. Religious harmony has never been achieved at meetings held by religious heads. But harmony has always happened when nameless people listened to each other, reaffirming compassion.

Originally written for The Hindu

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