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February 27, 2005
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February 27, 05

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Home > 2005 Issues > February 27, 05

Church-wary Red

By Sandhya Jain

During his tenure, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had tentatively suggested that the Indian society should debate the merits of religious conversion, as it provoked conflicts and stress among communities. Unfortunately, professional secularists raised such a furore over the remark that meaningful discussion was ruled out. Yet Shri Vajpayee was only reflecting a deep-felt concern of the Hindu community that there was need to suitably amend the fundamental right to propagate one?s religion, as minority groups insist upon interpreting it as a right to carry out conversions.

Now, West Bengal Marxists are beginning to feel that there may be some merit in the Hindu view that the concept of nationhood lies at the core of conversion, and that fiddling with faith can impact adversely upon the sense of nationalism as well. CPM cadres working in the Bengal countryside have found an unacceptable link between proselytisers and Western churches, between ?spiritual altruism? and a disturbance in the state?s ?socially tranquil chemistry? (Pioneer, February 10, 2005).

Anxious not to sound like a Red version of the VHP, Marxist leaders claim that certain Western capitalist interests ?are trying to employ their Kerala experiment in rural Bengal?, with a view to uproot their government. But the truth is that the Left is disturbed that under the cover of educational activities, the Church is indulging in politics. Left Front chairman, Biman Bose has already directed CPM cadres to monitor Church activities in tribal and rural areas, and the matter was discussed in the draft political resolution of the party?s recent 21st State Conference at Kamarhati, North 24 Parganas.

Though Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has avoided public comment, party sources say the Chief Minister?s prescient observations about certain religious institutions have finally found political expression. Four years ago, when Buddhadeb spoke out against questionable activities in the madarsas, he was sharply rebuked by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. Since then, much water has flowed down the Hooghly and the CPM is now scrutinising the activities of churches in the districts of Nadia, Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri.

Will the Marxists ultimately come to accept that in every country there is a connection between national interest and the faith and perceptions of the majority community?

Officially, the party still claims that ?conversion is not our concern.? But senior leaders are shocked at ?the amount of money being poured in the poor tribal belt to whip up anti-government centrifugal emotions in the name of education.? What is more, in the northern part of the state, some Church groups are said to be flirting with anti-national groups, like the Kamptapuris and the Maoists.

It would be interesting to see if the Marxists ultimately come to accept that in every country there is a connection between national interest and the faith and perceptions of the majority community. To ordinary Hindus, India is not just a modern nation, but the world?s oldest living civilisation, with a distinct identity, culture, and worldview that should not be subordinated to theories imported from Europe, that have no relation to India?s own historical experience. Hindus have found that conversion to Semitic faiths undermines and destroys the nation's civilisational ethos, as it involves disbelief in and disrespect for the original culture and way of life. The social fabric is inevitably ruptured, causing a sense of loss and grief among those whose kinsmen accept alien traditions.

It was precisely in this context that Mahatma Gandhi said: ?If I had the power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytising. It is the cause of much avoidable conflict between classes... In Hindu households, the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family, coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink? (Harijan, May 11, 1935).

When told that conversion no longer involved change in the outward forms of culture, Gandhiji countered: ?Vilification of the Hindu religion, though subdued, is there? The other day a missionary descended on a famine-stricken area with money in his pocket, distributed it among the famine-stricken, converted them to his fold, took charge of their temple and demolished it. This is outrageous. The temple could not belong to the converted, and it could not belong to the Christian missionary. But this friend goes and gets it demolished at the hands of the very men who only a little while ago believed that God was there.?

Gandhiji was emphatic that those who had converted to Islam or Christianity under pressure could return to the Hindu fold if they wished: ?If a person through fear, compulsion, starvation or for material gain or consideration goes over to another faith, it is a misnomer to call it conversion.... I would therefore, unhesitatingly re-admit to the Hindu fold all such repentants without much ado, certainly without any shuddhi... I regard no man as polluted because he has forsaken the branch on which he was sitting and gone over to another? If he comes to the original branch, he deserves to be welcomed and not told that he had committed a sin by reason of his having forsaken the family to which he belonged. Insofar as he may be deemed to have erred, he has sufficiently purged himself of it when he repents of the error and retraces his step? (Harijan, September 25, 1937).

Indian Marxists may now be the latest converts to this viewpoint. With CPM cadres actively monitoring the local churches in their areas, it may be only a matter of time before divergent voices converge on the issue of a national ban on proselytisation to non-native faiths.

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