Conversion is basic to one's spiritual existence
By Fali S. Nariman
Source: Asian Age (20 October 2008)
History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided. When the history of this country comes to be written and we are able to see things in perspective, it will record that a great statesman, (former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee), missed his true destiny when he said, after visiting Gujarat at the end of 1998: "We must have a debate on conversions". This was at the time when only crosses and bibles were being burnt. It got much worse after that. What he should have said was: "We must stop this senseless attack on minorities and minority religious institutions: because that has always been our tradition and our law".
As for tradition — it was in the 3rd century AD that the religious hegemony of the Brahmins in Hindustan was contested by kshatriya noblemen who founded Buddhism. This new religion rejected the predetermination of status by birth and the hierarchical ranking of castes. It became the religion of the kings who ruled India for several hundred years. Embraced by the Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC), Buddhism gained a foothold in the subcontinent. For more than 200 years it posed a real threat to Hinduism. Then in the 17th century Adi Shankara, with superlative missionary zeal, almost single-handedly restored the authority of the Vedas as the basis of Hindu thought. Not by force, but by the power of persuasion. By his discourses throughout the length and breadth of Hindustan this great young man (he died at age 32) put an end to the hegemony of Buddhism in India. He did this by exercising his inherent right to propagate his own religion — and he succeeded: there was no violence, no bloodshed.
During the reign of Harsh Vardhan (AD 606-648) — the last Buddhist king — the great casteless religion was stamped out in the land of its birth. Sir Charles Eliot, oriental scholar, described the denouement in an expressive phrase: "Brahmanism killed Buddhism by a fraternal embrace"! This was true conversion: and our tradition respects it.
So does — our law. The Fundamental Rights chapter of our Constitution says that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. The draft article (Article 19) corresponding to Article 25 was restricted to "profess and practice religion", it was changed, after debate and deliberation, to "profess, practice and propagate religion".
During the debate in the Constituent Assembly, one of the makers of modern India, Mr T.T. Krishnamachari, a Hindu by faith, had this to say on draft Article 19:
"Sir, I know as a person who has studied for about 14 years in Christian institutions that no attempt had been made to convert me from my own faith and to practice Christianity. I am very well aware of the influences that Christianity has brought to bear upon our own ideals and our own outlook, and I am not prepared to say here that they should be prevented from propagating their religion. I would ask the House to look at the facts so far as the history of this type of conversion is concerned. It depends upon the way in which certain religionists and certain communities treat their less fortunate brethern. The fact that many people in this country have embraced Christianity is due partly to the status that it gave to them.
Why should we forget that particular fact? An untouchable who became a Christian became an equal in every matter along with the high-caste Hindu, and if we remove the need to obtain that particular advantage that he might probably get — it is undoubtedly a very important advantage, apart from the fact that he has faith in the religion itself — well, the incentive for anybody to become a Christian will not probably exist."
Draft Article 19, with the word "propagate", was put to vote and was adopted as part of the Constitution of India 1950 (it is now Article 25). There may be two opinions on the subsequent decision of our Supreme Court in the case of Father Stanislaus case (1977) — about forced conversions — but it has stood the test of time, and we have all lived, without much discomfort, for nearly three decades with the Supreme Court's declaration of the law. After all, to be converted to a different religious persuasion is not a matter of force but of free volition and choice. It is basic to one's spiritual existence. No one — no State — can deny it. It is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to which India is a signatory. The UDHR proclaims that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes "the freedom to change one's religion or belief"; it is also reproduced in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India had ratified in 1979. Conversion by force in an offence — those who indulge in it can and must be prosecuted: so far hardly anyone has been. But there is no excuse for indulging in violence and mayhem.
Way back in January 1999 — it now seems only like yesterday! — Swami Nikhilananda who studied geology at my old alma mater St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, now a senior monk of the Chinmaya Order, was questioned about the ghastly incidents in Orissa leading to murder of the Australian missionary and his two children. "What is your reaction to the militancy of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal?" he was pointedly asked. He did not evade the question. He did not say "what militancy?" or "who says they are militant?" Swami Nikhilananda's answer was direct and straight forward. He said "such violence is condemnable. For a Hindu who swears by ahimsa and equality of all religions such acts are barbaric to say the least. The Hindu society is known for its tolerance and it is unfortunate that a few fanatics seek to divide society by their actions".
The trouble today is that the "fanatics" are not so few: They are getting more vocal and more violent and what bothers me is that there has been only sporadic condemnation by leaders of religious and political parties.
As a nation we appear to be ignoring the stern warning of the ancient Greeks: "Whom the Gods destroy, they first make mad".
Fali S. Nariman is an eminent constitutional lawyer