November 2, 2008

Faith in the system

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

Rohit Pradhan & Harsh Gupta

The unfortunate incidents of violence and arson in Orissa and Karnataka have attracted a lot of national and international attention. Scores have lost their lives and thousands have been rendered homeless and forced to flee their villages.

It has led to the usual rounds of blame and counter-blame. Christian groups allege that extremist Hindu groups attacked them without provocation. The Hindu groups, on the other hand, claim that some Christian churches indulge in aggressive proselytisation. Even if this is true, violence is clearly unacceptable as a tool of social discourse. The respective state governments should prosecute the perpetrators and ensure that they are punished to the fullest extent of the law. The state also needs to be more firm in dealing with rioters irrespective of their ideological affiliations or the ‘’justness’’ of their cause.

Religious conversions remain a highly contentious and sensitive issue in India. Since Hinduism is a non-proselytising religion, Hindu groups find themselves handicapped in the dealing with aggressive evangelical groups which are often backed by deep-pocketed donors in Western countries. While the claim that conversions are radically altering the religious demographics of India are far-fetched, it is indeed true that in some parts of the country—invariably the poorest—large-scale conversions have taken place. Christian groups have stepped in to fill the gap left by a dysfunctional state and in the process, attracted the poor to their fold.

A response to conversions must separate the state from the civil society. The constitution grants citizens of India the right to freely practice and propagate their religion. Therefore, it follows, that citizens will occasionally convert to a different religion. Clearly, a secular state founded on the principle of liberty cannot circumscribe the right of the citizenry to practice the religion of their choice or to the vagaries of individual’s religious beliefs.

But what if conversions are coerced or are a result of monetary inducements? A few states have passed laws restricting conversions precisely to address these concerns. They argue that religious conversions induced by material benefits are not really an exercise in free will, and hence the state has the right to curb them. Here again the locus standi of the state is questionable. The constitution visualises religion as the private affair of the individual and the state cannot intervene if the said individual decides to trade in his religion for monetary benefits. Whether the trade is spiritual or pecuniary is immaterial and cannot be allowed to bear any influence on the actions of the state. It is only if coercion has been established, does the state has the natural right—and an obligation—to intervene.

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