On secularism, conversion & nature of religion

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Mohan Guruswamy

When the late J. Jayalalithaa opened up the debate on conversions by passing an ordinance during her second tenure as chief minister of Tamil Nadu that made the choice of faith subject to the state’s approval, not surprisingly, the VHP, RSS and the BJP hailed it as a great achievement. Not surprisingly, their Muslim and Christian counterparts severely castigated it. To all these organisations, religion is not just a matter about heaven and hell and who gets to go where, but about power and profit. Modern religions are akin to great commercial enterprises like Coke and Pepsi constantly seeking greater marketshare while retaining the faith of existing customers.
It is the consequent faith, mostly induced and sustained by these exertions, which sustain the huge uniformed bureaucracies and extravagantly titled organisations that are the edifices of our major religions. Witness the recent no-holds-barred struggle for the control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in Delhi, which was nothing if not about getting one’s hands on the huge assets and cash flow of the gurdwaras. At least the Sikhs go about it democratically, in a manner of speaking. But all those of the great Hindu, Muslim and Christian institutions are beyond the grasp of even their most faithful. It is indeed unfortunate that debates on religion and faith are no longer about goodness and decency or even present day social concerns. But that is not for discussion now. At stake is something much more important.
The acceptance of democracy as a way of life implies that we have accepted that we hold certain rights to be inalienable. The Indian Constitution therefore guarantees justice, liberty and equality. The rights emanating from these are considered fundamental to our being a free and democratic society. These fundamental rights, therefore, are inviolable in the sense that no law, ordinance, custom, usage or administrative order can ever abridge or take away any of them. The preamble elaborates liberty to be that of “thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”, leaving little room for ambiguity. Like Hinduism’s eternal truths these are eternal rights. Without these rights we will be no different than a Saudi Arabia or North Korea!
Consequently, Article 19 guarantees the people of India seven fundamental freedoms. These are (a) freedom of speech and expression; (b) freedom of assembly; (c) freedom of association; (d) freedom of movement; (e) freedom of residence and settlement; (f) freedom of property; and (g) freedom of profession, occupation, trade or business.
Article 25 guarantees “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”.
This very simply means that people are free to believe whatever they may want to, convert others to this belief and perform whatever rituals or ceremonies that are required by one’s faith. In even more simple words, people are free to be Christians or Muslims or Hindus or whatever, free to preach and convert. Or that matter even Marxism, which now is no different than any faith with its own depleted philosophy and impossible mythology. So what is there to debate about conversion? This right is inviolable and is guaranteed by the Constitution, and so there is nothing to debate.
It is another matter that religions as we know them to be practiced are usually premised on irrational and primitive ideas. The psychologist James E. Alcock writes: “We are magical beings in a scientific age. Notwithstanding all the remarkable achievements of our species in terms of understanding and harnessing nature, we are born to magical thoughts and not to reason.” Now this relative absence of reason in religion very clearly gives us cause for a debate. Very clearly the liberty of thought and conscience and the right to profess and practice one’s religion is not the issue.
What can be the issue is our reticence to criticise religions, and subject their basic premises to scrutiny? Perhaps our bloodied history and particularly the conflicts of the recent past have made us want to seek accommodation by mutual tolerance. This is understandable and perhaps even commendable. Nonetheless, given the propensity of militant religionists like the VHP and the Jamaats to apply their doctrines to the political process and their constant endeavour to impose their views on others, not to challenge orthodox religiosity and fundamentalism would be a gross dereliction of our responsibilities.
What we are in need of is not a debate on conversion but a debate on the stuff our beliefs are made of. But this is not on our agenda and will not appear on it as long as we have the present dubious consensus on what has come to be called secularism. To be truly secular is to be a sceptic, and therefore rational and reasonable. Merely to be silent on the unreason wrapped in ritual and ceremony that passes off as religion, or even to be fearful of criticising these lest we provoke irrational rage and violence, is not secularism. It is the silence of the truly secular and rational that has allowed the religious fanatics of all hues to seize the high ground from which the battle for our minds is being directed.
This distorted notion on what is secularism makes even the maddest mullah cry stridently for it. To start with, to be a mullah or even a shankaracharya or a bishop is proof of one’s lack of secularism. To be secular is to consider organised religion little more than humbug. But now is not the time to discuss humbug, but the hullabaloo about conversion.
It still leaves us with the rights and wrongs of converting by false inducements. Is the promise of life after life not a false inducement? Since all of us are inevitably sinners and since no religion promises a more comfortable hell, the inducements have to necessarily relate to the immediate, and more often than not, for material gain. For some reason hell in all religions is always a hot, dank and dark place and heaven with a surfeit of all the good things of life. Nobody seems to give a thought that it is just these good things that get us into trouble in the first place. Not just in terms of clogging our arteries, wrecking our livers and exposing us to HIV, but in terms of getting us into trouble with the authorities above!
The criticism against Christian missionaries is that they dupe poor people into becoming Christians by giving them money. And ditto for Muslims preachers. If Hindus want to keep their flock the answer is staring them in the face. Put some money where your mouth is and the flock will not deplete? To be true, there is more than cash that goes with this. More often it is housing, clothes, education and the care and respect that comes with acceptance that are the inducements. The exchange of one set of primitive ideas with another set of not very different yet similarly primitive ideas is no big deal. Ordinary people can be very practical when it comes to matters pertaining to their well-being.
Both the State and our predominantly Hindu society have failed to provide to the majority of this country the elementary essentials of living and quite often even the elementary decencies due to all human beings. Added to this, our society has systematically discriminated against the weak and the oppressed. Our former President, the late K.R. Narayanan, had a point when he wanted to know, from the then Atal Behari Vajpayee government, if no dalits or adivasis can be elevated to the Supreme Court? Why do they exist mostly below the poverty line? Why do more of them die younger? Now here are subjects worthy of a debate. The call for a debate on conversion lends itself to expansion to include these. Just as it lends itself to a discussion as to why people are so easily willing to give up their traditional faith. Clearly, the systematic exclusion of a majority from their rightful role in the community and the continuing discrimination against them is a great subject for a debate. If the Hindu upper castes were to be civilised in their treatment of the lower castes, would they now seek to escape from the social tyranny of the so-called Hindu society?
Such an expanded debate could possibly shed light on why for most of the about to conclude millennium we were a conquered nation. It is over a thousand years since Mohammed bin Kasim conquered the Sind. Thus paving the way for a succession of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Uzbeks, Mongols, Portuguese, French and the English to invade and rule parts, if not all, of this country. In the process, we even became the only nation to be conquered by a private commercial enterprise — the East India Company. How much lower than that can you get? Our thousand years of shame quite clearly calls for a debate we have never had.
Such a debate will almost certainly focus on the failures of the Hindu elites to defend the nation, to unite the country and harness its great resources. It is not very different even now. The lessons of history are yet to be learnt. And so we will want to debate what we shouldn’t be and not debate what we should be.