Jaideep Prabhu set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons with his provocative article in Firstpost titled “Is religious conversion a fundamental right” . He makes a forceful argument that a blanket ban on proselytization and conversion cannot be considered an assault on fundamental rights. Goes on to say.
By privileging the Semitic moral world order, the Indian state sowed the seeds of violent conflict. The perceived protection of the state via preferential treatment in terms of personal laws, religious institutions, educational establishments, and the outright legal bias (think Shah Bano or the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill) instigates communities against each other and against the Nehruvian state. As Roover eloquently states, “the seeds of religious violence are sown by the liberal state; however, it is the communities that harvest them.” Source: Firstpost
Abhinandan Sekhri of News Laundry made a sincere attempt to debunk it. Then Sandeep chimed in with a fine rebuttal on India Facts. Which was then rebutted again. Meanwhile, Scroll.In carried a piece by Shoiab Daniyal summarizing the states that have regulated conversions and explaining Rev Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh. Sekrhi, Daniyal, and dare I say the majority of our educated middle class share the following view. A proselytization ban is the paranoid and insecure Hindu using his numbers to weasel out of competing in the free marketplace of religions. Some nuggests from their articles.
Sekhri: I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech and expression. This is a concept alien to many who live their lives in fear of extinction, in insecurity and paranoia. Daniyal : Finally, the fact that individuals can be legally tied down to their religion of birth and do not have the full freedom to make their own decisions is one in a long line of measures taken by the Indian state that treats the country as a conglomeration of communities and not of individuals. This is an extremely slippery slope to be on, one that the country must look to get out of.
I will try to address the problems with the liberal expectation in this post.
The soul market
Lets recast the argument into simple terms.
Hindus claim to have a great religion with a very rich tapestry of rituals, practices. They talk about the Dharmic faith’s superior notions of absolute truth vs “The word”, its inclusiveness and lack of violence towards Heathens. There is also no top down layer of clergy that intrude into your way of life, no punishment for heresy or apostasy, no excommunication. If these are such great virtues as you claim, then why not let Christian missionaries do their gig – then you go in and present Hinduism. Let the people decide.
Now this is too simplistic. Almost no one converts because they are attracted by these high doctrinal differences. They convert for more mundane reasons such as temporal benefits. Then the argument continues.
Fine, lets say the Christian missionary from Alabama is teaming up with a local Diocese and building a school and offering a seat in exchange for hopping on board. Why cant Hindus build a school and match him? If he can fly 40,000 miles into a strange land why cant Hindus do this in their own land?
I believe this is a very important, widespread, and valid expectation that needs to be addressed head on.
Economic costs of conversion
I believe Rev Stanislaus as well as the Freedom of Religion laws in a few Indian states are the wrong place to start. Defining “Force and Fraud” is tough and worse it equates the “act of conversion” to a discrete contract. Conversion is not a single contract but a life time of smaller contracts. While the specific act of conversion; say dunking in a pond maybe free of duress, the subsequent obligations on a newly converted individual may not be. Which is why legal bans on the act of conversion alone are so problematic.
Let us examine what the costs are for a new convert.
The first cost of a convert out of Hinduism is that he loses his right of free religious syncretism. For those who may not know – religious syncretism is a way of improvising a religion by selecting desirable elements from various sources. Syncretism is a heresy.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
The second cost is he subjects his freedom of everyday living to a layer of clergy. The key to remember is Christianity is not ONE religion but many branches. If a family converts into say a Pentecost – they lose their right to wear jewelery, flashy clothing, compulsory congregations etc etc. Converts into Adventists or LDS or other protestant denominations have to make quite a few changes to diet and social practice. Your typical elite Christian friend usually can get away with a lot of things, but new converts are typically monitored and required to have a certain level of participation. The extent to which these rules are enforced depends on the local congregation or parish, but there is always some enforcement.
So the costs for a new convert are giving up syncretic i.e, his pagan practices and subjecting themselves to monitoring from a layer of clergy.
On the benefits side; there are those who genuinely find the regimentation and the singular truth to be attractive. But outside of that circle the benefits are more temporal. One might expect to erase caste identity by smothering it with a larger and more visible one, but even that has to be mixed with something tangible. More aggressive missionaries simply give cash or loans.The single most important benefit however is always access to educational services from lowest to the highest levels.
So, the urban liberal wonders All this is fine, but why cant Hindus do the above too instead of clamoring for a ban on proselytization ?
Until this point. I am solidly with Sekhri, Dhaniyal and the secularists.
After all, if it turns out that all the purported benefits of Dharmic religions like its ability to syncretize and offer religious autonomy have a net economic cost of being lesser than a school seat – we Hindus have a bigger problem. Hindus should focus on providing that school seat or medical services etc instead of preventing others from doing so.
But this ignores the elephant herd in the room. The so called market is neither free nor fair. The law is used to first burden and then checkmate the Hindu response and to encourage conversions in an insidious way. But it isnt Shah Bano or Uniform Civil Code or Ayodhya temple or Haj Subsidy that is the culprit. These are red herrings – I have chased them too and discovered that they have limited effect due to their lack of impact on public law.
The real distortion is in the educational landscape. Most recently the UPA’s outright communal programs like minorities-only scholarships, explicit govt cash to minority schools only, and MSDP have started to contribute to the distortion.
How Idea of India arranges incentives
A band of Nehruvian Indians might have pulled off the biggest mass hypnosis in history. It is to make Indians inert and exhibit zombie-like behaviour when interacting with the institution of law. It took me a few years to snap out of it, so I wish to help others too. People assume that the laws in force must have a some moral basis. Because? Well, various eminent folks are deeply and visibly engaged in law and so many of our politicians are also lawyers. We occasionally see streams of groups and individuals obtaining relief from the courts. We also trust the argumentative legal community to have enough vitality and a culture of dissent. If the eminences hold forth bizarre positions – their sparring partners will rush in and demolish them.
Say this doesn’t happen, all you see in the media is happy silence or mutual admiration. You are trained to assume that this consensus indicates that the laws must be fine, completely in alignment with modernity and Rule of Law, and our own constitution. Our inner unease with its morality and unfairness must be explained in other ways. Is it due to our inherent belief systems, maybe it is our Hindu faith that must be questioned ? This confusion exists only in the groups have been burdened by law, as I explain later.
Sorry for the detour, but this is essential to understand how the Hindu is unable to, rather prevented by law from, responding effectively to proselytizing religions.
Two key problems
Lets now turn our attention to the specifics. In terms of political economy, Dharmic society should be treated as a conglomeration of ‘discrete and insular minorities‘ (to borrow a term from a US Judge Harlan Stone in his famous footnote in Carolene Products). Therefore the very idea that there is a permanent political minority in India is wrong. That such a permanent political minority is exactly the same as Christians and Muslims is even more suspect. They are able to freely make alliances with Hindu groups like Yadavs, Kurmis, Kurubas, the various Tamil groups, etc and we just got off a decade of rule of the Congress party which brought together this alliance. So the real discrete minorities in India are small Dharmic groups, jatis, and tribes practising a bewildering array of rituals.
Problem 1 : Rights of Dharmic discrete and insular minorities are ravaged by an extremely low standard of judicial scrutiny.
This is exactly the opposite of the US position. Followers of my Twitter account are frequently annoyed at my focus on “minor” matters like the Jallikattu ban, the continuous harassment of Dahi Handi activities, the recent animal sacrifice ban in Himachal temples, the superstion bills etc. Let me explain why this is of such paramount importance. If Dharmics have to respond to Proselytizers they have to bank on their strength of diversity and inclusiveness. Now for many of the Dharmic groups, their primary interface with the larger fold is in through their practices. If the law adopts a very low standard of “baby scrutiny” and bans age old Hindu customs like animal sacrifices in HP just by looking at some gory pictures; that group stands humiliated. Its members are confused.
For example : Jallikattu organizers (Tamil Hindus) are unable to understand why packing cattle in trucks and slitting their throats by the thousands every single day is not only legal but subsidized by govt but they get to go to jail for playing with their pet bulls? Similarly Himachali Hindus are aghast that their Jatka sacrifice on one day to their Devi-Devta is illegal but year round Halal slaughter in pink revolution is not. They then turn to liberal intellectuals in India for an answer and are met with silence. In stark contrast, the US when confronted by a ban by the State of Florida on animal sacrifice by the Santeria religion – threw it out in Church of Lukumi Babalu vs State of Florida.
In India, the establishment has arranged the legal system in such a way that the practices of ‘discrete minorities’ which comprise the Dharmic faith are easy pickings for any activist. On the other hand, practices of Semetic minorities are completely immune. This preference might then be duly conveyed by the proselytizers to the masses as the Indian state establishing their religion as a ‘preferred’ one .
Problem 2 : Gratuitous rights not available to Dharmics
In Problem 1, we saw that when the state injures a Dharmic minority group the court usually lets it pass with “baby” scrutiny. On the positive rights side, Dharmic groups are denied gratuitious rights available to Semetic religions. The biggest and most important conflict site is in the realm of education.
I do believe this is the biggest Indian story since independence. What started off as a negative right ; ie dont touch our schools, has now turned into a monster. I have documented extensively how far the minorities have come in appropriating the domain of education. This is aided and abetted by lawyers, media, and intellectuals.
Furthermore, the wealth of Hindu Dharmic Jatis and Tribes are captured in Temples that are under secular administration. The funds of the dioceses and Islamic trusts are in their own control.
Despite all this – Hindus have managed to squeak through and enter the education sector. But the Right to Education Act has the effect of stripping them of even this and turn the clock backwards. By thrusting a intrusive inspection and compliance regime, under constant pressure from various High Courts over PILs from NGOs, forced into immoral cross subsidy, endless lotteries, media defamation, and nomination issues – Hindus are forced to beat the retreat. The minorities, even the publicly funded ones, however are entirely immune from this.
We have to understand the paradigmatic importance of control of access to education when it comes to free market of ideas. It is not just about schools raking in money. Most in fact dont rake in money directly. Those who run schools and colleges wield tremendous influence. High court judges and former chief ministers routinely approach and beseech top school management to accommodate their kin. The issue with aided minority schools and colleges are even worse. For example: We are trained to believe St Stephens Delhi is a model college worthy of replication. But if you told an American jurist that the Indian govt not only provides full aid to parochial colleges with explicit discrimination but also imposes more burdens on completely private Hindu colleges – he would be aghast. The US goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure public money doesnt touch private or parochail schools. See my posts on St Stephens here and here.
Do any of these recommendations sound weird ?
- Re-open all cases of imposing burdens on discrete minorities and subject it to enhanced scrutiny. This will lead to overturning bans on Jallikattu, HP Animal Sacrifice Ban and others like Nag Panchami.
- Nudge a doctrine of strict scrutiny for any future case of banning or even regulating any minority cultural practice.
- There is no way around repealing the Right to Education Act. There is precedence in Very Rev Mother Provincial vs Kerala case – where the KL govt tried to impose on private educational institutions, minorities got exemption, then they said – “lets toss the whole thing, there is not enough left on the plate here”
- If you cant turn over Hindu temples to Hindus – atleast stipulate that 60-70% of temple funds appropriated by HRCE & lying as unused bullion in State Banks must be routed to Hindu Trusts to run schools.
- Roll back the concept of aided minority schools and colleges, or actually any “aided” school where management of govt money is in private hands. Either the govt runs the school or not.
- Open up wide debate on moral and legal basis of the 93rd Amendment where only Hindu run colleges are subjected to a yet-to-be-declared quota system.
- Immediately discontinue UPA’s over the top egregious programs like IDMI and MSDP. It stuns me we still have them, but that is a topic for another day.
To ask for ‘let Hindus duke it out in market of ideas’ with proselytizers is a clear sign of ignorance. A complete disconnect with the strategic landscape in India. You have to roll back all that I have mentioned for a level playing field to emerge.
First Idea of India style laws need to undone, their arguments deflated, and a new confident regime of uniformity rolled out. It is not an easy task.
(This was first published on the Reality Check blog: http://realitycheck.wordpress.com/)