Swami Agnivesh and Rev. Valson Thampu

Reports about conversions and re-conversions, appearing now with increasing frequency, should make all right-minded people burn in shame both for what they are and what they point towards. Nothing proves our contempt for human dignity and our apathy to human suffering more than
making poverty and desperation of the people an open invitation for political and communal horse-trading.

Nearly a year ago, the Shankarachayra of Puri made a lightening visit to Manoharpur and ‘re-converted’ 76 tribals who had become Christians over a period of time. Lest such converts polluted the sacrosanct caste structure over which he presided, the Shakaracharaya also advocated the creation of Swastika temples for the benefit of the reconverts. Manoharpur is
a cluster of 15 villages in Orissa, inhabited by Santhals, alienated like all tribals from the fruits of development and the basic amenities of civilized life. The only medical help available to them was what the Australian missionary, Graham Staines, used to organize for them from time
to time. The Christian community in this region had grown to around 200 over a period of 20 years. But it took Shankaracharya only a whirlwind visit of less than a day to annex a quarter of that community.

What interest the gentleman continued to take in the well-being of the people of Manoharpur, or even in the people he reclaimed from Christianity, is a subject on which we have heard nothing for very long. In contrast, Graham Staines used to visit these villages regularly over a period of 18 years, braving considerable hardships, to organize what little medical help he could manage. Staines had compassion on the people: the Shankarachayra, in contrast, seems not only to be immune to such pedestrian human sentiments but contemptuous of their dignity and
human worth.

More recently the VHP claimed to have reconverted Christian dalits of Jamua in Jaunpur district of UP. It was not any ‘propagation of religion’ that led to this mass re-conversion. The villagers were promised that their backward village would be blessed with a pucca road, school, and hospital. Excited at the prospect of such luxuries, they readily agreed to oblige the VHP. A re-conversion ceremony was organized promptly and the ‘home-comers’ were blessed with lockets and certificates attesting their new religious status. But that meant nothing for their economic status. If anything, their pots and stomachs only became poorer for their ‘home-coming’. Not surprisingly therefore, less than a week later, the ‘re-converted’ dalits were ready
for yet another ‘re-conversion’. This time it was not the allurement of roads or hospitals that worked the trick. It was the call of hunger. In the words of Sadhuram, one of the villager, ‘‘We do not know what Hinduism or Christianity is about, but one thing is for sure: with a Jesus portrait in our house, at least we get our meals.’’ The sentiment is echoed by other re-converts. They say, “We would like to be where we get meals.”

As a general rule, all mass-conversions and re-conversions are bogus. They do not result from genuine spiritual motivations. Conversion, as understood in Christianity is the by-product of an inner spiritual transformation. It is a shift from self-centeredness to God-centeredness
and the corresponding shift from mean-mindedness to large-heartedness. Everybody, including those born into Christian homes need to experience this. This process is mediated through repentance, which is strictly a personal experience. A crowd cannot repent.The idea of
someone converting from one faith to another for material or social benefits is repugnant from the perspective of spiritual integrity, which is the domain to which genuine conversion belongs. Any person or group that aids and abets mass conversions does so not for the sake of the
converts but for one’s own advantages, whatever they might be. The motivation could vary from material returns (local or overseas funding) to sheer tit-for-tat (as seems to be the case with re-conversions). It is however sad that hardly anyone seems to be genuinely interested in people who become mere shuttlecocks in this racquet game of conversions and re-conversions.

What keeps the mockery of conversions and re-conversions going is the perpetuation of avoidable poverty. The ideas and the strategies that rule this sphere of mounting irreligion are all forged in the furnace of poverty. Sub-human poverty and caste oppression combine to legitimize
the practice, and allurements of diverse kinds facilitate strategies of easy conversions. Insecurity reinforced by expectations of gain, from government as well as NGOs drives the bus-to-nowhere of re-conversions. The poor are easy targets for the protagonists and antagonists of
conversion and neither has anything to do with religion or informed personal choice, except in rare instances of individual conversions.

The only redeeming feature of this otherwise despicable scenario is that the cycle of periodic conversions and re-conversions could become a survival strategy for the poor. Disowned by the government and excluded by the society from the zone of development and decision-making, these wretched of the earth, have little worth either in the eyes of the ‘converters’ or of their ‘caste’ enemies. Disorganized and fragmented, they are nowhere near the formidable political force they could have been if only they were united. As though portending the curse of history, the ethos of the emerging global order is virulently allergic to their existence and expectations. Plagued by endemic illiteracy, periodic illnesses, mounting unemployment, and the total absence of social security, all that they can do to survive is to capitalize on the communalization of conversion, even if it seldom means anything more than a periodic meal. Ironically, the politicization of conversion could well be God’s way of providing for the poor in a heartless society.

In this age of judicial activism we would submit to the Hon’ble Supreme Court two possible options. The first is to obligate the Central and State governments to ensure on pain of contempt, that starvation deaths do not occur. Recently 8000 children died of poverty in Maharashtra alone even as food grains lay rotting in government godowns. To ruined farmers in our country only suicide is the available escape route from predatory creditors. The ‘right to life’ guaranteed by the Constitution needs to be pro-actively interpreted in the light of these poverty-linked deaths. Alternately, the Hon’ble court could remove the ambiguities that enshroud conversion and guarantee the right of the poor and the destitute to convert and re-convert as often as necessary to be able to survive, taking advantage of the politicization and communalization of conversion. If the latter is the option of preference, details like what should be the ‘minimum reward for conversion/re-conversion,’ protection from harassment in the event of conversion and re-conversion, guarantees to ensure that promises made prior to conversion and re-conversion are honored will have to be worked out.

The escalating poverty and the fast-degenerating quality of life for the millions who live below the poverty line are integral to the politics of poverty that has been unfolding itself since Independence. A country that could develop nuclear weapons and is now launching itself into the space age has to try desperately hard to convince anyone of its inability to eradicate poverty when it is common knowledge that 5% of our GDP is sufficient to attain this goal. It is not that there is ‘no political will’ to eradicate poverty. The truth is that there is a political will to perpetuate poverty. The political establishment in this country has got used to the benefits of keeping a majority of the people illiterate and docile. It is unlikely, therefore, that any significant initiative even to minimize the scandals of poverty and starvation death will be forthcoming, until irresistible pressure is mounted on our political establishment. Since that day seems a long way away, the only viable option is to facilitate competitive conversions
and re-conversions, so that they become unwitting conduits for ill-gotten wealth to flow into the hands of the poor in whose hands these wages of sin would be transformed into the sanctified bread for survival.