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Mainstream, VOL LX No 19, New Delhi, April 30, 2022

India’s Anti-Conversion Laws: a Violent attack on the Dignity of Dalits, Adivasis and Women? | Joseph Tharamangalam

Friday 29 April 2022, by Joseph Tharamangalam

“Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 in respect of a minor or a person of unsound mind or a woman or a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not less than 4 years” (Karnataka’s Bill, p.2, emphasis added).

This quote from Karnataka’s anti-conversion bill, ironically named “The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill” (passed on December 23, 2021, but still awaiting final approval by the Legislative Council) reveals how the largely savarna lawmakers view the SCs, STs and women who, they are convinced, need their protection from conversion since they are incapable of making any free choice in this matter. Is it by some accident or absent-mindedness that these law makers have listed a member of these three groups in the same company of a minor and a person of unsound mind? No, on the contrary, this is actually how they see them through the lens of the caste ideology, often labelled by critics as “Brahminism”. No wonder, they are angry at the sinister “religion converter” who deploys his armory of “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or any fraudulent means” to convert the innocent, ignorant, and unsuspecting prey; they feel so concerned and duty-bound to protect these vulnerable co-religionists and members of their parivar to launch these unusual measures even at the risk of violating the country’s constitutional provisions that guarantee every citizen the right to choose whatever religion she wants to join or propagate. Karnataka’s new law appears to be the most stringent among similar laws recently passed in some other states in terms of several provisions including the severity of punishments, burden of proof imposed upon the “converter”, and even the large list of people (anyone who disapproves of the event qualifies) who are authorized to file a formal complaint to the authorities. Note that the District Magistrate is required to post personal details of the “converter” for public view, endangering his/her safety in a highly charged and violent anti-Christin environment.

It is important to note the ambiguity of the wide variety of the list of unlawful means here, all of these broadly defined and subject to whatever interpretation a generally savarna judge (increasing numbers of these also Hindutvavadis these days) chooses to determine what they mean and how they operate on the ground. Just to take one hypothetical example, can a Christian school, hospital or orphanage (typical public services offeree by Christian institutions), especially if it offers free service to poor Dalits or Adivasis, qualify as one offering “allurement” if the judge sees it so? This may very well depend on the judge and his preconceived ideas and prejudices, right? That he may see these institutions with this prejudiced lens may not be such a far-fetched scenario when one considers that it was just two years ago that Fr. Stan Swamy, a Catholic priest who was a social worker and human rights activist among SCs and STS was charged with terrorism and cruelly imprisoned even denying the sick and aging man much needed medical help hastening his death. In any case, the assumption underlying the Act is clear; a Dalit, Adivasi or woman is not qualified to make this decision herself; indeed she must go through a time consuming and complicated process submitting to the district magistrate, not just an application, but various “declarations” before and after her conversion—if the judge grants his permission. Note that the “converter” also must follow similar procedures.

Let me digress a little on the meaning of “conversion”. When Gandhiji campaigned for the abolition of untouchability, he also vigorously opposed any activism from the untouchables from below, insisting that what was needed was a “change of heart” by the upper castes, actually a conversion in its biblical meaning, as when John the Baptist who baptised Jesus called upon people to convert by renouncing sin and turning to the path of righteousness.

I think it would be helpful here to try to see the issue of conversion in a broad historical context and ask: who are India’s Hindus? Who said Dalits and Adivasis are Hindus? It is a truism to say that Hinduism is simply a term applied by outsiders to a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices in a vast subcontinent, but with some common practices of which the most easily notable appears to be caste. Dalits and Adivasis were declared Hindu by the stroke of a pen by European Census takers. The logic behind this definition was simple; count everyone a Hindu if she/he is not a Christian or Muslim. Could we see this as conversion by definition? This is a very important question especially in the context of India’s caste system in which the upper castes own the right to define the identity and self of the lower castes. The exercise of this power to impose such definitions has been explained as symbolic violence by social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, and such symbolic violence is always backed by physical violence, potential and actual. Defining Dalits and Adivasis as Hindus became a political issue in the context of creating a majoritarian identity in anti-colonial and Hindu majoritarian movements.

Anti-conversion movements and laws have a long history going back to colonial times. In fact, one of the first presidential orders in independent India was to declare that only Hindu Dalits would be entitled to SC status and to reservation, a privilege later extended also to Sikh and Buddist Dalits, in response to organized demands from them, but denied to Christian and Muslim Dalits. Their struggle for this right continues even to this day without any final resolution, an issue discussed in detail by a recent study by sociologist Satish Deshpande. On the other hand, if they re-converted to Hinduism (a move now labelled “ghar vapsi”), they would get these rights and entitlements. This provision continues to be used as an “allurement” for conversion of Christians and Muslim Dalits to Hinduism to this day.

In conclusion, it should be clear how the anti-conversion laws are an assault on the rights and dignity of Dalits and Adivasis, and a violent attack that subjects them to draconian measures to control their choice of which god to worship or which person to marry.

(Author: Joseph Tharamangalam, PhD., Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, NS, B3M 2J6 Canada; Ayyankali Chair of Social Transformation, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India)

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