The Karnataka Legislative Assembly recently passed the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, commonly referred to as the anti-conversion bill. It prohibits conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement or marriage. The bill will now go to the Karnataka Legislative Council.
The bill clearly states: ‘No person shall convert or attempt to convert either directly or otherwise any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire for conversions.’
The bill is very clear in its objectives. It recognises that individuals have the freedom to practise the faith they want. Nevertheless, certain politically motivated Christian organisations claim that the bill is intended to be what they call ‘trampling upon the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of religion, privacy and dignity.” This claim needs to be examined critically and historically. Gandhiji’s understanding of missionary politics of conversion would help us get a clear picture. The ways in which Gandhiji challenged contentious religious conversions would continue to be relevant.
To understand the anti-conversion bill historically, one must grasp what Mahatma Gandhi had written and spoken on this. Gandhiji had an unshakable conviction in the philosophy of ‘sarvadharma-samabhav’—equal respect to all religions. He stated that all religions originate from the same God, and they preach the same ideas and ideals. He argued that no one religion is higher than another as he believed that all religions are complementary to one another. “For me, different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden or they are branches of the same majestic tree,” Gandhiji said in 1937.
When Gandhiji was in South Africa, he came in contact with Christians and missionaries. Despite his admiration for missionaries for some of their social services, he did not like the concept of converting people to missionary faith as he felt that all religions have the truth. His political philosophy of non-violence appealed to a considerable number of missionaries who, in turn, became his supporters. Even when some missionaries wanted to embrace Hinduism, he advised them to remain Christians, but better Christians. While contesting the idea of proselytisation, he advocated an alternative model that people should be better Hindus, better Muslims and better Christians.
Gandhiji in1927 stated that ‘Today we see competition and conflict among different religions for counting the number of their followers. I feel deeply ashamed of this and, when I hear of people’s achievement in converting such and such number to a particular faith, I feel that that is no achievement at all, that on the contrary, it is a blasphemy against God and the self.’
When a foreign missionary Dr John Mott asked Gandhiji a question: ‘Do you disbelieve in all conversions?’ he replied: ‘I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never undermine another’s faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and, therefore, respect for them. It again implies true humility, recognition of the fact that the divine light having been vouchsafed to all religions through an imperfect medium of flesh, they must share in more or less degree the imperfection of the vehicle.’ Regarding conversion, Gandhiji in 1932 argued that no one should invite another person to change their religion. He asserted that the belief that one’s religion is true and another’s is false is an error.
Gandhiji cautioned missionaries that he does not believe in people telling others of their faith, especially with a view to conversion. For Gandhiji, faith does not admit telling. It has to be lived, and then it becomes self-propagating
The apprehensions that marginal communities would convert in masses to Christianity had provoked political backlashes against contentious religious conversions. Such could be traced back to mass conversions in South India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Conversion to Christianity started spreading in various parts of India, including the tribal areas in north India and some princely states. The foreign missionaries continued to use the term’ mass movement’ to refer to large-scale conversions. This provoked some Indian national leaders like Gandhiji, who censured that these supposedly mass movements would seriously threaten anti-colonial movements.
Most notably, to validate their point of view that mass conversions were ‘purely spiritual’, an American based Wesleyan Methodist missionary Waskom Pickett undertook a survey of nearly four thousand converts from ten areas in India in the 1930s. His objective was to document the everyday experiences of those converts who embraced Christianity for spiritual motives. While rejecting his claims, nationalist critics of conversion, especially Gandhiji, All India Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, made a series of efforts to challenge missionary proselytisation.
It is often argued that conversion is a consequence of persuasion, cognitive act, the commitment of free will or a change from one ideology to another. Nevertheless, such arguments often tend to ignore the contentious mode of conversion—conversion from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage.
The material assistance with which certain proselytising agencies influence underprivileged sections hardly resembles the deeply embedded religious practices of Sakat in Islam and langar in Sikhism and Sufism. The evangelising missionaries, pastors, and others strongly believe that helping the poor and the needy would provide them with more ‘souls.’
Since the missionaries and zealous evangelising Christians target the marginal sections largely, it raises a series of questions. Gandhiji was one such individual who was critical of the very ideas of ‘conversion’ ‘mass conversion’. He had a range of discussions and debates with missionaries who endeavoured to 'appease' the supposedly lower sections of the Indian masses. He asked the missionaries a pertinent question: Would you preach the Gospel to a cow? He used the term cow, not in a derogatory manner. He asked this question simply because he noticed that a considerable number of people from marginal sections were seen worse than cows in understanding. This meant that they could make no more difference between the relative merits of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity than a cow. Gandhi had no remorse about the propriety of the analogy. He stated that no offence could be meant to the marginal sections because he considered the cow a sacred animal. He also revealed that he worshipped cows like how he worshipped his mother.
The foreign missionaries and proselytising Indian Christians have often indicated that the supposedly poor sections initially come to Christianity for protection and material help. While discussing the question of the motives which had induced a large number of marginal sections to place themselves under missionary instruction, Robert Caldwell, one of the aggressive proselytisers in the second half of the nineteenth century, stated: ‘If the marginal sections place themselves under Christian instructions, the motive power is not theirs but ours. They never heard of such things as high motives, and they cannot be made to comprehend what high motives mean for a long time. An inquiry into their motives, with the view of ascertaining whether they are spiritual or not, would seem to them like an inquiry into their acquaintance with Greek or Algebra.’ This remark of a 19th-century missionary reflects Gandhiji’s idea of conversion and reminds us why anti-conversion laws are crucial to deal with such contentious proselytising motives.
The apprehensions that marginal communities would convert in masses to Christianity had provoked political backlashes against contentious religious conversions. Such could be traced back to mass conversions in South India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Conversion to Christianity started spreading in various parts of India, including the tribal areas in north India and some princely states
Missionary politics of conversion was understood clearly by Gandhiji. He ventured at several missionary meetings to tell English and American missionaries that if they could have refrained from ‘telling’ India about Christ and had merely lived the life enjoined upon them by the Sermon on the Mount, India instead of suspecting them would have appreciated their living amid her children and directly profited by their presence. He also cautioned missionaries that he does not believe in people telling others of their faith, especially with a view to conversion. For Gandhiji, faith does not admit telling. It has to be lived, and then it becomes self-propagating.
India after Gandhi witnessed a series of contentious religious conversions. Subsequently, cultural nationalists realised that there were potential threats from American-British missionary activities, particularly in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Orissa in the 1950s. The Jana Sangh had organised an anti-missionary week in Madhya Pradesh, which led to the appointment of an inquiry committee in April 1954 under M. B. Niyogi, a former chief justice of Nagpur high court. The committee submitted its report on 17 July 1956.
The committee that enquired about the activities of missionaries and converts in Madhya Pradesh found a sharp increase in the numerical strength of missionaries, from 4,377 to 4,877 between 1951 and 1955 and of the 480 were in Madhya Pradesh, nearly half of whom were from the United States. It also noted that the foreign missionaries in India received Rs 2.9 million between 1950 and 1954, two-thirds of which was contributed by the United States. According to the report, the amount was used for building hospitals, schools and orphanages where ‘fraudulent conversions’ were attempted and achieved.
What happened in the 1950s appears to be repeating now in some parts of India, including Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The foreign missionaries were responsible for such contentious religious conversions when Nehru was the Prime Minister of India. Now, certain proselytising agencies receive huge sums of money from foreign countries to indulge in such objectionable activities. The anti-conversion law, which is Gandhian in its theory and practice, should challenge contentious religious conversions from one religious faith to another.