‘Forced conversion’ myth & poisoning of public sphere against Christians

New laws such as the 'forced converstion' bill contribute to further poisoning the public sphere since these laws provide a legal way for state apparatus to go after vulnerable Christians thereby strengthening deeply held suspicions about Christians

Members of the Christian community participate in a silent protest against the Anti-Conversion Bill in Bengaluru. Pic PTI

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties Karnataka has recently published a report on the increasing persecution of Christians in the state. Just in 2021, the report listed at least 39 instances of attacks against Christians. These attacks include but are not limited to harassment, entering home-churches and disrupting prayers, beating up pastors and their families and burning Bibles or other printed materials.

The pattern is clear across these cases – vigilante mobs (affiliated to the Sangh Parivar) create a myth of ‘forced conversion’ which is allegedly reducing the Hindu population. While the attacks themselves are ruthless in their violence, the mainstream and social media discourse is almost always around the gullibility of the poor; the poor who are ‘bribed’ or even ‘coerced’ into converting their religion.

Paradoxically then, the more incidents of vigilante violence against Christians, the louder the bogey of ‘forced conversion’, the more insecurity it creates amongst Hindus.

The urgency of the report comes from the effort to stop a ‘forced conversion’ bill that is due to be tabled in the Karnataka legislature just a day or two before Christmas. If passed, it will result in a law that prohibits forced conversions and will enforce that law with harsh penalties including high fines and several years in jail. Of course, it is known both to the ‘majority’ as well as to the Christians that the entire nub of the matter lies in how the legislation (on paper), and the police (in practice), interpret the notion of ‘force’.

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The proposed law is not a new idea, it has been tried in several states before, usually and unironically, called ‘Freedom of Religion’ laws. While the details may vary to some extent, in all of these states, the core objective is precisely to criminalise the freedom to propagate religion.

Also read: Miscreants vandalise 160-year-old church in Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur

After BJP came to power in 2014, the laws introduced in states such as Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (last two states repealed their older laws) have become much harsher. Offenses are non-bailable, jail time and fines have increased, in fact, even higher if the person converted belongs to SC/ST groups. Marriage is linked to conversion and thus converting for marriage or marrying to convert are both criminalised.

Potential converts now have to give advance notice to the district magistrate, to be followed by a police inquiry about the ‘real intent’ behind the proposed conversion. The proof of burden also now rests on the person converting rather than the person making the accusation. There is little doubt that if and when Karnataka brings in this law, it will have the same features. Undoubtedly, this legislation will be challenged in the High Court since all these laws clearly violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that gives individuals the liberty to profess, practice and propagate their religion freely.

It is another matter whether the higher courts uphold constitutional liberty or cede to the legislature. BJP ruled states seem determined to impose state-sanctioned violence against Christians and Muslims (Karnataka, like other BJP-ruled states could also soon bring in a law to address the issue of ‘love jihad’). These laws should be seen as the logical outcome of the propaganda seeded by the Sangh Parivar for decades through on-ground mobilisation (camps, rallies etc.), mainstream media and more recently through social media.

The poisoning of the public sphere produces public legitimacy for new laws to target religious minorities. The new laws contribute to further poisoning of the public sphere since these laws provide a legal way for state apparatus to go after vulnerable Christians thereby strengthening deeply held suspicions about Christians. What do I mean by poisoning the public sphere?

Take the now infamous case of Shekhar Goolihatti, an MLA from Karnataka, representing Hosadurga and member of the Legislature Committee on Backward Classes and Minorities. He caused a public and media uproar earlier this year when he alleged that his own mother had been forcefully converted to Christianity. He claimed that approximately 20,000 people had been converted (presumably by force) in his district and according to his logic, if his own mother had been compromised, then no one was safe.

Subsequently, his mother has said that she converted to Christianity of her own free will. The local administration (tahsildar) of the district has gone on record to say that there are no cases of forced conversion in Hosadurga, and the police are yet to find a single case of conversion by force. Yet, the BJP has confidently repeated the slogan of forced conversion even without a shred of evidence.

Also read: Bommai govt tables anti-conversion bill in Assembly amid protests

On the contrary, this official who oversaw the survey on conversion and reported no cases of forced conversion was transferred upon reporting his findings. These are clear signals with respect to the intent of the state, and even though the official law and policy discourse moves in certain ways, there are plenty of opportunities for the state to make its intent clear through various mechanisms at its disposal – including the use of spokespersons who spout propaganda on television, transfers of officials and so on.

As far as the media discourse is concerned, the notion of ‘forced conversion’ implicitly attributes illegality and unethicality to Christians, often reinforced through the compelling narrative and aesthetic of the ‘sting operation’. Both the legislation and the media discourse have deliberately stretched the word ‘forced’ to include a wide range of things including a wilful misinterpretation of allurement and inducement. This issue, beyond matters of legal interpretation, is a crucial cultural battleground in terms of shaping religious group identity.

In the media, the issue of propagation is translated as a mix of coercive and persuasive practices. The coercion aspect was highlighted in the legislature when MLA Shekhar Goolihatti (in his speech in the legislative assembly on the matter) implied that those who resisted conversion could get cases of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 slapped on them, or false rape charges filed against them, the media often reports on the cases as instances of the conversion ‘mafia’.

The persuasive practices (often called as ‘bribe’) refers to the missionary work of Christian institutions, especially in the areas of healthcare and education. There are whole programmes devoted to how Christian institutions offer conditional welfare – offer of a seat in a school or college, or offer of treatment at a hospital only if the beneficiary will convert to Christianity. Anchors use such accusations to move the discourse from the anecdotal particulars to socio-cultural generalisations.

For instance, one TV programme suggested that while ancient and timeless ‘Indian’ philosophy (read as Hinduism) offered universal hospitality and welcomed all regardless of difference, it was Christianity as a relatively recent ‘western’ or ‘outside’ religion that insisted on its own superiority compared to other religions.

The caste system’s structuring of our societies is the key to understanding the production and sustenance of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim discourse over several decades. It would be a mistake to assume that the attacks are against just ‘Christians’. There is significant internal diversity within Christianity, and the intersection of caste with Christianity is crucial to understanding the nature of the increasing violence against Christians in Karnataka and many other states in India.

Also read: Religious conversion is silent invasion, says Karnataka CM Bommai

The recent attacks against Christians in Karnataka are targeting Dalit and Adivasi Christians, who are usually affiliated with forms of charismatic and neo-charismatic Christianity, both denominational and non-denominational. These forms emerged from Pentecostalism but now have their own distinct identity, arguing that gifts such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues are available to all in the Church.

These (neo) charismatic forms are usually much smaller institutions (usually house churches) with small but loyal community participation and support. They offer more attention to the individual rather than only addressing the community at large. In such churches, given the absence of institutionalised presence and operations, it is often the case that pastors and their families play a key role, thus providing a more human connection for their followers.

Their support is not just about material advancement (housing, education, access to healthcare etc.) but also offers spiritual redemption by negating caste identities and instead focusing religious practice on themes of dignity, community cohesion and fraternal association (in short, what Dr Ambedkar called fellow-feeling).

The question therefore should not be about ‘forced’ conversion. The real question is why some groups are leaving the fold of Hinduism and converting to Christianity? It is no mystery that those who have suffered for centuries under Hinduism find Christianity more appealing.

In fact, it is not possible for Hinduism to offer this emancipatory horizon. As Dr Ambedkar noted in his undelivered speech, ‘Annihilation of Caste’: “Supposing a Hindu wished to do what the Christian missionary is doing for these aborigines, could he have done it? I submit not. Civilising the aborigines means adopting them as your own, living in their midst, cultivating fellow-feeling – in short, loving them. How is it possible for a Hindu to do this? His whole life is one anxious effort to preserve his caste. Caste is his precious obsession which he must save at any cost”.

If you keep aside the outdated references to the ‘civilisational’ mission and the supposed ‘primitiveness of the aboriginals’, Dr Ambedkar’s analysis accurately explains the current anti-Christian sentiment amongst the Hindus. He goes on to argue in ‘Annihilation of Caste’ that while Hinduism (like Islam and Christianity) was a missionary religion at one time (thus leading to its spread and adoption across the country), it is now no longer a missionary religion because of the caste system. The problem is that if one converts to Hinduism from another religion, then which caste does he or she enter into? Apart from the practical problem of so-called ‘Ghar Wapsi’, it is caste (at an ontological level) that prevents ‘fellow-feeling’ in the Hindus’ associated mode of life.

Given this fundamental underlying truth that surely all caste Hindus are aware of, it seems that a collective frustration (about Hindus leaving the fold) has found an outlet in the lie of forced conversion. This frustration is so strong that in spite of forced conversion being an obvious and complete fiction, the discourse continues to generate outrage and piety amongst the voters that the BJP hopes to consolidate across caste.

The project of cross-caste electoral consolidation appeals strongly to BJP leaders who have been voted either by fragile majorities or by coalition governments or by buying over Opposition parties to form the government (Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Basavaraj Bommai are fine examples). These politicians are keen to achieve bigger majorities in the next election.

Isolating and othering Dalits and Adivasi communities as ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ is seen as a good discursive strategy to imply that religion divides communities. This discourse produces the illusory and ideological concepts of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ if religion is seen as the basis of difference.

If Christian and Muslim Dalits and Adivasis were to access some protection and welfare on the basis of their caste and indigeneity (just as Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits and Adivasis can), and if there were transparent caste-based census done across the country, it would go a long way in rearranging the power geometries of our caste-based societies and significantly recalibrate our notions of majority and minority. It is the duty of all progressive citizens to put pressure on state and central governments to implement both of these policies at the earliest.

The writer is Visiting Fellow at Media and Communications Department, London School of Economics and co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bengaluru.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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