Chapter 15: Inter-Religious Conversion

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 15: Inter-Religious Conversion

A paper presented at an inter-faith Consultation on Religion, State and Communalism” held at Madras from Sept. 21-24 under the auspices of the CCA and several religious and secular organizations in India, at a session chaired by Swami Agnivesh.


The topic of Inter-religious Conversion has many dimensions. But I suppose it has to be dealt with in this consultation from the point of view of its relevance and relation to the problems raised by the threat of Religious Communalism to the Secular Democratic character of Indian polity and the democratic struggle of the people for an egalitarian community.

Clearly many aspects of religious activities must have been dealt with in their relation to India’s secular democratic polity by the time this presentation comes before the consultation. So I expect some of the basic issues I shall be dealing with in respect of conversion will at many points be a repetition of those which have already been considered. Nevertheless the agenda worked out by the organizers of the consultation seems to have its rationale and I am happy to introduce the topic for your discussion.

My presentation has three parts. The first part deals with why the individual’s right of freedom to “profess practice and propagate religion”, and to convert to another faith and religion inherent in it, is a condition and guardian of all other democratic freedoms and fundamental human rights in State, society and culture. In the second part, we shall point to the specific conditions in India which has made inter-religious conversion an issue of communal politics and shall also look at some aspects of the history of the controversy whether the solution lies in depoliticising religious conversion or in outlawing it. And in the third part, I shall discuss a non-communal form of religious existence and some Christian theological reasons for promoting a non-communal expression of the Christian faith and fellowship.

The idea of the secular democratic nation-state emerged in Europe in the context of the secular humanist Renaissance and the rationalist Enlightenment which followed it on the one hand and of the Protestant Reformation and free-church movements following it on the other. The emphasis on the right of the individual to pursue and obey one’s “reason and conscience” even against the dictate of church, community and/or the State whether in the realm of scientific or religious truth was a basic principle affirmed by them in common. And the religious denominational plurality along with strong middle class and later working class groups committed to atheism destroyed any possibility of return to Christendom, and the only option for national unity was to secularize the state with equality under law for all religious and secular thought and groups. The religious denominational pluralism and the puritan desire to prevent the state from interfering with their religious freedom along with the forces of secular liberal thought brought into being the secular democratic polity with its clear separation between religion and state in the USA. However, the doctrine that humans as rational and/or spiritual beings “have ends and loyalties beyond the state”, community and nation to which they belong, became part of the “civil religion” or civil culture, which gave moral reinforcement to this whole process of democratization and secularization.

In fact the characteristic of State totalitarianism whether under Hitler or under Stalin was the rejection of this doctrine about human being as having ends and loyalties beyond the state”, it turned the citizens from being spiritual persons into functions of the state and social planning machines. The one point at which totalitarianism made this evident was in cutting the freedom of religion. The Confessing Church in Germany in resisting it, both at the level of doctrine and practice in their relation to the Jews, became the source of renewal of democratic politics in Germany after the War. Of course, the freedom to practice religion was there in Russia and China, along with freedom of atheistic propaganda. It is significant that in all situations of democratization, freedom of religion including propagation of religion and atheism equally was restored. In this context it is worth mentioning that the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights clearly affirms religious freedom and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion as integral to it. But religious people would maintain that the inalienability of fundamental rights depend on the doctrine that they are not gifts of the state or even of the people who constitute the state, but the gift of the Creator as the US Constitution puts it or the Spirit as we would say in India, and that therefore these rights cannot be taken away by the state or the people.

I am not unaware of the difference in approach regarding propagation of religion and inter-religious conversion, between religions with a dominant “mystic” spirituality and “unitive” vision, and religions with a dominant “prophetic” spirituality and “messianic” approach. Religions which consider the mystic experience as the ultimate point of spiritual self-realization, consider history with its plurality as of no ultimate significance, and consider the many religions in history with their emphasis on nama and rupa as ultimately so relative and insignificant, that they are tolerated as equally true or untrue. On the other hand, religions which believe that God has revealed himself and his purpose in a concrete historical event or a tradition of such unique events with fixed name and form and as continually acting in history, see spiritual self-fulfillment as consisting in propagation of the news of the unique event and in building up a fellowship of people who acknowledges the revelatory event, which will also be a sacramental sign and instrument for bringing God’s Kingdom on earth. Of course, these are two types of spirituality and every religion has both types in it, because of interpenetration. But Hinduism, Taoism and religions of the mystic family are predominantly mystic oriented and Judaism, Christianity and Islam are predominantly prophetic-messianic in character. The former would naturally emphasize the sameness or equality of religions and the necessity to negate them all in the ultimate spiritual experience, while the latter would emphasize the essential difference between them and their historical mission in the pluralistic situation.

It is necessary to add that the modern secular ideologies like Liberalism and Marxism as well as Nationalism and Statism which have arisen in prophetically oriented western religious culture, have a secularized messianic spiritual approach to history and human self-fulfillment. Ram Manohar Lahia, a secular ideologist, has written on the essential difference between what he called the western and traditional Indian spirits. The traditional spirit bases mutual toleration of historical differences on the idea that they are parts of the same truth, while the modern spirit of democratic toleration of differences is on the basis that though they are essentially different, reverence for each other as persons requires respect for each other’s freedom to differ. It is this difference between the two types of religious spirituality that needs to be understood in the debates on the question of the freedom of propagation of religion and conversion, as a fundamental right of the human person. It also clarifies why secular ideologists among Hindus are generally more supportive of freedom of conversion than the religious. Because as they can see, on it depends the right of ideological propagation and conversion which is basic to the multi­party system of political democracy.

Of course as Lohia sees clearly in his Fragments of a World Mind, the messianic historical spirituality has produced more “strife” in society than the mystic, while the latter has produced “stagnation”. Given the choice between the two, he would choose to die in strife than stagnate. The point is that Semitic religions have produced more missions of humanitarian service but also more crusades of conquest than the mystically oriented religions in the past; and now that the traditionally mystic religions like Hinduism are also converting itself to Semitic messianic historical spirituality, it is also producing missions of service as well as power-crusades of conquest. Dostoevskey in his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor has shown how the spirit of Jesus the Crucified Messiah has itself been turned into the spirit of the Inquisition to serve a Jesus turned Conquering King. Dostoevskey was of course thinking of the same mutation in modern secular ideological messianisms. The same spirit in modernization has, along with missions of service to universal humanity making human life richer and fuller, produced also a good deal of power-crusades for conquest which has found expression in technology being used in the service of colonialism and transnational and national economic exploitation, totalitarian statism and destruction of nature. The question is, whether in religion or in secular modernity, these perversions of the messianic spirit can be redeemed by the spirit of genuine humanism within it and/or controlled by the rule of law from outside it, without suppressing the basic spirit of democratic freedom. At the level of spirituality, the role of the cosmic primal as well as the mystic unitive spiritualities in checking the messianism of conquest underlying modernization has also come up for universal consideration.

Sorry for the time taken for this digression into the spirit of modernity and its relation to messianic spirituality. It is necessary for a consultation like ours to see that religious ethos and political ethos are connected. Now back directly to our topic. It is necessary to ask what the conditions in India are which make for aggressive communalism more than in other countries.

S. Gopal in his recent talk at Bangalore on A Historical Perspective of Secularism in India (1993) has pointed out how communalism was introduced by colonialism. Whether we take the popular culture or the culture of the rulers, “what you had in India was not a sectarian Hindu culture or a Muslim culture but a composite Indian culture” . The British who colonized India had accepted the European concept of nationhood as constituted by unity in blood and language, “ethnic purity and a single language”; therefore, they said, that “India is not and can never be a nation...India is a collection of religious communities...But the unfortunate tragic element was that this British interpretation of Indian history was also accepted by many of our national leaders...So British interpretation plus the shortsightedness of our own leaders, not excluding the Mahatma, together resulted in this dreadful phenomenon of communalism”. In such a setting, religious communalities came to be political units to be wooed by Imperialism and Nationalism. The numerical strength of the communities came to acquire political significance. It was in this context that majority and minority communalism became strong and Akhanda Hindustan and Pakistan became religious/political goals.

And even Gandhi had to develop a secular nationalism by conceiving cooperation between religious communities rather than transcending the religious divisions. The desire of the Hindu leadership including Gandhi to build up a “single Hindu community” was a natural outcome of the pressure of the political situation. But it came to be associated not only with religious but also with caste political overtones, and came into conflict with the anti-Brahmin movements of depressed castes who were organizing separately for separate political strength to bring about cultural and social change aimed at elevating their status in the body politic; it also made the conversion into other religious communities, of the depressed sections of Hinduism as well as of the Tribals partially Hinduised and moving more fully in that direction, to be seen as a weakening of the Hindu community and a strengthening of other religious communities as political entities.

In this process the mystic spirituality of Hinduism was also changing in the direction of the messianic spirituality. So far as Gandhi was concerned, it was towards a syncretism of mystic Hindu spirituality with the self-giving and suffering love of Jesus the Crucified Messiah producing the politics of nonviolence aimed at a secular nation-state based more or less on inter-religious understanding and the decentralized socialism of Sarvodaya. But the Hindutva of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS parivar, as Ashish Nandy points out, was a semiticisation of Hinduism converting Hinduism as “faith” into Hinduism as “ideology”(Ashish Nandy, Hindutrva;  I. Secularism’s Disowned Double, II. The Poor man’s Statism in the Indian Express Feb 1991). It was a conversion of Hinduism into the messianism of power-crusade and conquest, which as Sebastian Kappen has said (in Understanding Communalism 1993) was not unlike that of the medieval theories of Christianity and Islam.

The British also solidified the separation between religious communities by making the personal law (civil code) of each community legal. And when Christian missions made converts and created Christian communities they imposed an English law as the personal law of the Indian Christian community and separated them from other religious communities legally. Therefore religious conversion also became a transference form one legal religious community to another. I am told that India is the only country where Christians have separate civil law like this. Of course as Mundaden has clarified in his History of Christianity in India Vol. I., it was the Portuguese Catholic mission that emphasized the religious and communal exclusiveness of the Christian fellowship of faith in the Kerala situation where traditionally there was much syncretic interaction between Syrian Christians and Hindus at all cultural and social levels. They also openly identified conversion to Christianity as an extension, not only of western culture but also of western Christendom i.e. the pattern of integration of church, community and politics of medieval Europe. In the 19th century, the Protestant Christian missions identified Christianity almost totally with western culture and made religious conversion to Christianity a transference from Indian culture to an alien culture. Thanks to the oppressiveness of the Hindu caste culture, the Christian converts from the depressed and low castes saw conversion as a liberation from caste oppression. Thanks to intolerance of caste structure, converts especially in the North had to be organized in Mission Compounds where the cultural ethos of community life was that of the western missionaries. Only when conversion became a group movement among the dalits and tribals that the social and cultural structures and values of the converts’ traditional life came to be kept intact. But that made conversion more suspect as politically motivated and materially influenced.

I have repeatedly related the story of how the Constituent Assembly came to accept the inclusion of freedom of religious propagation in the clause on fundamental rights of religious freedom in response to the Indian Christian community voluntarily giving up the communal representation proposed by Britain as safeguard for the Christian minority. George Thomas in his book Christian Indians and Indian Nationalism, gives the story of how K.T.Paul and S.K.Datta of the Indian YMCA who represented Protestants at the Round Table Conference in London, took a determined stand against turning Indian Christians into a communal political entity by Britain imposing on them communal representation, communal electorate and other communal safeguards. The All-India Christian Council in 1930 said that “the place of a minority in a nation is its value to the whole nation and not merely to itself” and it depended on the genuineness with which it sought the common weal.

Azariah who later became Bishop of Dornakal argued that the church in accepting the position of a communal political minority with special protection would become a static community and it would negate its self-understanding as standing for mission and service to the whole national community, that in any case the Indian church is not a single social or cultural community since it consists of people of diverse background, each of whom would have its own political struggle to wage in cooperation with the people of similar background in other religions; and therefore theologically and politically Christians should ask only for religious freedom for its mission and service to all people, not as a minority right, but as a human right (ref. John Webster, Dalit Christians-A History). H.C.Mukherji and Jerome D’Sousa were the spokesman for this secular nationalist cum Christian approach in the Constituent Assembly. “The immediate outcome was an offer by Sardar Patel and accepted by the Assembly that religious freedom in its full sense including the right to propagate religion should be written into the Constitution, not as a minority right but as a fundamental right of human person”( MMT, Social Reform amongst Indian Christians. P.16). It was a sort of covenant between Christians and the nation- on the part of Christians that they will not use their numerical strength for the purpose of their communal interest in politics and on the part of the state that it would not restrict their evangelistic freedom and the growth of the Christian fellowship through inter-religious conversion undertaken through genuine conviction. That covenant has been sought to be violated on both sides. The Orissa and Arunachel Pradesh laws and the lapsed OP. Tyagi Bill supported by the Prime Minister Desai restricting religious conversion and also the discrimination of scheduled caste converts to Christianity in the special benefits to people of the scheduled caste background, may be mentioned as violations of the covenant on the part of the State; and the Christian people have been unhappy at giving up minority communal safeguards and many efforts to organize Christian political parties off and on have been made in several states especially in the South by Christians.

This is an issue that continues to agitate both majority and minority religious communities. Religion has not yet become a matter of personal choice, and politics still remains a matter of bargaining among religious communities. Of course the right to the propagation is not the right to convert. The former is the right of persuasion only. The right to convert is that of the hearer. And it is necessary that no kind of inducement or coercion is present to violate the moral and spiritual integrity of the person or group propagating or deciding to convert. But any law in this matter is difficult to implement and is likely to be misused. Public opinion is the best moral safeguard. Of course Law provides that any fundamental right can be exercised only with due regard to morality and public order. But the issue is far from being closed.

In a paper on “Proselytisation -a Causal Factor for Communalism” at the Nehru Centenary Seminar at Trivandrum on “Minorities and Secularism”, N.V.Krishna Warner opposes the above convenant and the freedom of conversion given as fundamental right (Minorities and Secularism- A Symposium 1991). His argument is that it is conversion from Hinduism to other religions that has been a serious cause of Hindu Communalism. He says, “Hinduism as such does not favour the idea of proselytisation. . .Hinduism did not object to this so long as political power depended not on numbers but on other factors. Now that democracy has come to stay, Hindus have belatedly realized that numbers do count and only numbers do count ultimately”. Further they see that there is “high concentration of non-Hindu communities in several states of India many of them on the borders”, which places national security of India at risk. Therefore he asks whether it is not time that the law stops the movement of proselytisation which is “a form of aggression”, and take a decision that “propagating one’s own religion is different from proselytisation and that while the former is every Indian’s birthright, the latter is a punishable offence”(pp. 223-9). Here there is a mixture of religious and political motivations and the assumption that the security of the Indian nation lies primarily on Hindus on the border, because others are supposed to have extra-territorial loyalties. This is of course the Hindutva approach.

A different moderate approach is given in “Communal Strife Linked to Conversions” the report of an interview with AP Governor Krishna Kanth (Indian Express 20 Oct. 91). At a meeting of the National Council of Churches he asked, not for any legal restriction but a “a voluntary agreement among religious leaders of all faiths that from now on they would not resort to conversions because the social logic of conversions is not valid now”, that the promise of liberation from caste structure has not been fulfilled as proved by the fact that it persists in all religious communities; and any attempt to organize Hinduism as a religious community like others of the prophetic tradition has been a failure. So it is argued that “caste is not just a Hindu phenomenon, that Hinduism is not a religion, and that both Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar were victims of this false perception”. Hindus are trying to become a religious community in the image of religions each of which has a book and a prophet because such a community has more unity. But “what Hinduism is not it cannot become”.

From the Christian side, the thinking has gone on the line that the Christian church as fellowship of faith in Christ should cease to be a religious community in the common communal sense. A conference of the NCC of India, on renewal in mission, came to the finding that conversion to Christ is “not moving from one culture to another or from one community to another community as it is understood in the communal sense in India today” (Renewal in Mission p.220). In the Christian Institute for the Study-of Religion and Society there was an open discussion about a proposal that since Christ transcended not only cultures but also religions and ideologies, the fellowship of confessors of faith in Jesus as the Messiah should not separate from their original religious or secular ideological community but should form fellowships of Christian faith in those communities themselves, and that so long as the Law sees baptism as transference from one community to another it should not be made the condition of entry into the fellowship of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper but made a sacramental privilege for a later time( Ref. Religion and Society March 1972).

T.M. Philip in his historical survey of Baptismal practices and theologies (Debate on Mission, ed. Hoefer 1979) says that the “rite has become a legal condition for the entry into the church which functions as a religious communal group; in this context it fails to convey its full meaning and purpose as the expression of or solidarity with the new humanity in Christ which transcends all communal or caste solidarities”; he also refers to the conclusion of Joseph Belcastro’s book A New Testament Doctrine of Baptism for Today, that “the N.T. does not teach that baptism was a condition of salvation or church membership, but baptism was to be available for the disciples of the coming church.... that faith in and acceptance of Jesus as the Christ was the basis of membership in the church”(pp. 321).

In the late eighties the Indian Theological Association explored the pattern of the church in a secular mode as herald of the Kingdom and servant of the world in a pluralist society like India. Kuncheria Pathil asks for “the Open Church with flexible structures boundaries rules and rituals” in dialectical and dialogical relationship with religions and ideologies and cultures and in solidarity with peoples’ movements for justice . George Lobo says that while the visibility of Christianity is needed for the sacramental role, the fellowship of faith, if true to itself “has to be essentially charismatic and not a power structure or rigid institution seeking to safeguard its own interests”. Also that “there is nothing in authentic Christianity that would demand that one who receives baptism should abandon his original socio-cultural group and join another” (Communalism in India- A Challenge to Theologizing 1988).

The present Indian legal system of separate civil law for different religious communities imposes separateness between communities of faith. It is necessary to have a common civil code so that conversion at the level of faith may not have the effect of a communal transference. If that is not possible, Fr. H. Staffner has brought forward the proposal which the late E.D. Devadason mooted, namely that the Christian community should accept the recodified Hindu law as their own civil law in the place of the present quite outdated Indian Christian Law which, as already stated, was an imposition of an English law on Christian converts in India. Staffner says, “People may find it strange that Christians should be asked to agitate that a so called Hindu law be made applicable to them. E.D. Devadason points out that the law worked out by Pandit Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar in 1956 is not really a Hindu law. The mere fact that this law is applicable also to Jams, Buddhists and Sikhs clearly shows that from the beginning it should have been called Civil Code rather than Hindu Code” He adds, that it is not based on any Hindu Scriptures but on “modern concepts and progressive values and is applicable to all citizens irrespective of religion”. Staffner sees it as one way to give baptism its true sacramental sense rather than the communal” (“A Better Civil Law or a Communal Personal Law for Christians” in Peoples’ Reporter, 1 - 15 Aug 1994).

Recently there was a Court judgment in Madras which granted the contention of a person who affirmed that he was a Christian by faith without change of community by conversion and therefore entitled to benefits ofthe scheduled castes of the Hindu community. I thought it was an interesting judgment which distinguishes faith and communal affiliation.

We have to move in the direction of decommunalising politics and fellowships of religious faith if politics and faith are to find their genuine democratic or human character.