Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 December 2002
Issue No. 615
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Crisis over conversions

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu has passed a bill outlawing "forced" religious conversions. Low-caste Hindus have reacted with outrage, threatening to renounce Hinduism en masse. Shaikh Azizur-Rahman reports from Calcutta

Hundreds of low-caste Hindus, or dalits (literally, "the downtrodden"), have threatened to convert to Christianity, Buddhism and Islam in response to a new ordinance which outlaws religious conversions in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The dalits are also demanding that the bill, which was passed on 31 October, be revoked immediately.

Tamil Nadu has become the first Indian state to bring in a bill banning all religious conversions either, "by force, allurement or fraudulent means". Anyone found guilty will be punished with imprisonment and a hefty fine.

The legislation has been welcomed by Hindu fundamentalists, who object to low caste Hindus converting to other faiths. However, several minority groups, who have termed the ordinance as "an attack on their fundamental rights", say it is going to trigger an even larger exodus from India's majority Hindu religion.

Dalits in Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai said that 10,000 of them would convert to Buddhism on 6 December if the ordinance is not revoked by the government by then. In a separate move, the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), have said 25,000 of their party members would embrace Christianity in protest against the "unjustified" decree soon. A DPI leader said the conversions would be conducted on a "voluntary" basis.

In the Madurai and Kancheepuram districts of Tamil Nadu other dalits have threatened to convert to Islam.

The Tamil Nadu Dalit Lawyers Forum and the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, which are preparing the 6 December conversion in Tamil Nadu, said dalits throughout the country are being subjected to inhuman treatment and that they were spontaneously coming forward to switch their faith.

"Upper castes [Hindus] have been torturing dalits for centuries. Now, by passing this bill, the government has decided to shackle us in a society where we are denied even basic democratic rights," said one dalit activist identified only as Emmanuel. The activist also said that in the recent past, two dalits were forced to eat human excrement and one was forced to drink urine by powerful upper caste Hindus.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalitha, has argued that the bill is intended to halt forcible conversions only, and to prevent the exploitation of the downtrodden. However, many independent observers believe she is against voluntary conversions as well. "Conversions create resentment among several sections [of the population] and also inflame religious passions, leading to communal clashes," the chief minister said during a three-hour- long debate in Tamil Nadu's assembly.

However, minority rights organisations from different parts of India, belonging to the Christian, Muslim and dalit communities, have threatened to launch a nationwide agitation if the bill is not withdrawn soon.

The Global Council of Indian Christians said it was "alarmed by the hurriedly promulgated ordinance", which was "the most heinous violation of religious freedom and aimed at targeting Christian missionaries engaged in poverty alleviation and spreading the light of education". Additionally, they claimed that it was "aimed at curtailing the freedom of the Christian minority and undermining Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

The All-India Christian People's Forum said that the new law went against the very core of the Constitution. "This ordinance is uncalled-for, unwarranted and smacks of the pro- Hindu ideological bias of the Jayalalitha government." Reverend Thangaraj, a pastor from the Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, said that the law will become a tool for Hindu fundamentalists to prevent even voluntary conversions and many innocent missionaries will be harassed.

M Karunanidhi, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, also feared that the law was liable to be misused against the innocent in many cases. "Even if one changes one's religion of one's own free will, those involved in the conversion can be punished, on the ground that it's a case of forced conversion," he said.

"The bill runs foul of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which grants freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion to every Indian citizen. It also undermines Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, curtailing one's freedom to choose a faith or religion. This is an assault as much on civil rights as on human dignity," said Dominic Emmanuel, director of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese.

The secretary general of the Christian Council, John Dayal, said, "In fact, the only inducements by fraud and fear are those being carried out by the Bajrang Dal, the VHP and the RSS [Hindu organisations] in the tribal belt where innocent tribals are being forced to become Hindus."

In the last ten years, Hindu activists have brought more than 350 allegations of forcible mass conversions against Christian missionaries. Interestingly, in no case could any investigative agency prove the charge of "forcible" conversion.

"How can conversions be prevented if an individual is attracted to another religion because of his or her faith in it? Force is never used to convert one to Islam because it is against the basic tenets of the religion," said Maulana Siddikullah Chowdhury, the general secretary of Jamiat-e- Ulema in Calcutta. He added that low-caste Hindus convert to Islam simply to "escape discrimination and ill treatment", and not under any coercion. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu organisation leaders have welcomed the anti-conversion bill.

"The BJP strongly feels that this law is necessary for the whole country. Lots of money is coming into the country from Islamic organisations to aid conversions," said BJP President M Venkaiah Naidu. Additionally, the VHP (World Hindu Council) leader Ashok Singhal has hailed Jayalalitha's "timely and bold step" and hoped other states would emulate her lead.

The issue of religious conversion has long been a source of controversy in India. While federal law allows Indians to change their faith, the ruling BJP party makes no secret of its dislike of the practice while its affiliate, the VHP, views conversions as a betrayal to Hinduism.

For centuries, dalits, or "untouchable" low-caste Hindus have faced discrimination from upper-castes. In search of freedom and dignity low-caste Hindus escape the caste system by switching to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or Sikhism.

The latest controversial bill comes almost two months after reports of mass conversions of poor, low-caste Hindus to Christianity in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. Hindu activists claim people were converted by missionaries using force, while supporters of the conversions said that low- caste Hindus chose to change faith because they were no longer able to bear the discrimination against them.

In 1981, an entire village in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district converted to Islam following atrocities committed by high-caste Hindus. More recently, low-caste Hindus in a village near the temple town of Kanchipuram threatened to convert to Islam because they were not allowed to worship in the Hindu temples there.

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