Hindus should ask why people convert
The outbreak of communal violence in Orissa has disturbing implications. The state, with a 22 per cent tribal population, has been largely peaceful since the gruesome murder of Graham Staines, a Christian missionary, and his two children in 1999. As in the case of the Staines’s murder, Hindu fundamentalists were held responsible for triggering unrest during the Christmas season.
The violence was one-sided in the past, but no longer. There is resistance on the part of Christian groups to acts of vandalism, including destruction of churches, allegedly by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other sangh parivar groups. The government should ensure that fundamentalists, irrespective of their faith, do not disrupt law and order.
At the root of the trouble is competition among various religious and political groups to convert tribals to their cause.
The issue is not limited to Orissa. It is alive in the tribal areas of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. A struggle is on to reap a harvest of tribal souls. Christian missionaries were the first to arrive, followed by sangh parivar outfits like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.
Maoists are the latest force in the region. Each of these groups wants adivasis to convert to its belief. Their task has been made easier by the government’s misplaced tribal policy that sought to protect tribal culture and lifestyle from modern establishments, including schools and hospitals. The church became a much-needed substitute for the state, building schools, colleges and hospitals. Hindu missionary activity, with political undertones, is also devised along similar lines.
These ‘missionaries’ have stepped into a vacuum created by the government.
The Constitution guarantees the freedom to convert and be converted, even though some states, including Orissa, have enacted laws to regulate religious conversion. However, Hindu groups which constantly seek a ban on conversions rarely ask why they happen in the first place. Is it because Christian missionaries offer material inducements to tribals as the VHP and other similar groups claim? Or, is it more than that?
The biggest inducement to convert, particularly for tribals and Dalits, seems to be the promise of self-respect. It is not surprising that religious conversion takes place mostly among tribals and Dalits. A change of faith promises a reprieve for these people from a still oppressive caste system.
Conversions have always been a powerful instrument of dissent from religious institutions that refuse to be inclusive and accommodative. The way forward is for these institutions to introspect and change.