Judging the Attempts to ‘Convert’

It was 7:30 a.m. in the morning. I was sitting in a drawing room of a guest house in Noida, waiting for my room to be allotted. A lady of about 50 came looking for the receptionist, but he was not to be found there. She approached me and in her heavy South Indian accent asked if I could give my 15 minutes to her. I willingly accepted it. She took out a pamphlet and handing it over to me, she asked me to read it slowly. After the teaching in that pamphlet has sunk in, she would explain more about it, she said. The leaflet described something about a particular type of yoga- ‘Sahajyoga.’ It had attractive pictures in it. The lady could not hold her zeal to ‘evagelize’ me, and before I could finish reading the leaflet, she jumped in. She was in complete charge of next 15 minutes and I heard her patiently with some intermittent questions. When asked what would regular practice of ‘Sahajyoga’ would achieve for me, she told me that I would become more peaceful, prosperous and realize that I am Brahma, Christ and Allah. I relished the 15 minutes long discourse that followed it.

Well, the question that has kept lingering in my mind since then is this: Should one consider her efforts to share her faith with me an attempt to convert me? If yes, then is she not guilty of attempt to convert? But if not, then can a Christian doing exactly what she did, consider to be converting people? How can we use two different scales to measure the same act?

Soon after this incident, a friend of mine, who had recently shifted to Australia told me about the passionate practice of ‘evangelism’ followed by such sects there. I am sure these sects would be at the forefront in demanding the minority rights and freedom of speech in an adopted country if the law of that country hinders their business. However, in India, anything a Christian does, it is simply ‘to convert.’ A Christian is not able to get rid of this tag of ‘conversion’ stuck to him/her by the supporters of Hindu fundamentalism. ‘Christianity’ and ‘conversion’ have almost become synonyms, thanks to the pracharaks of Sangh Parivar. These pracharaks have right to preach misinformation about Christianity (e.g. that Christians eat meat and drink blood in their services), but a Christian has to think a thousand times before uttering the name of Christ today.

Conclusion: Should not a Christian have same right to preach about his beliefs, as much as a Hindu has to speak about his religion and a Muslim has about his convictions? A good discourse between religions will help us refine our own beliefs only. An environment where such discourse is suppressed will only stifle the human growth. To suppress a Christian from sharing his faith under the charge of attempting ‘conversion’ is illogical and will do much harm by not allowing the values a Christian can contribute to society today. And a Christian will feel free to share what he/she has only when he/she is released of this tag of ‘conversion.’ Both Christians and other religious communities will have to work together to this end.

Experiences with Our Tolerant Culture

I have been in Gujarat for more than two months now. Gujarat is the land of Gandhi and Sardar, Vikram Sarabhai and Dhirubhai Ambani and I am proud to share my Gujarati identity with them. I strongly believe that our identity as Gujaratis and as Indians is a gift from God, a privilege that brings several responsibilities on us. God calls us to serve our dear nation and our janmabhoomi, India with all our heart.

However, what saddens me is that every time we as Christians make any effort to serve our motherland, we are simply branded as people interested in conversion. In spite of our commitment and service, every act of ours is seen as an act with a hidden agenda of conversion. On the other hand, when one looks at those who claim to be the real children of mother India and guardians of its culture, one wonders if the kind of Indianness they proclaim and practice has more credentials.

I live in outskirts of Ahmedabad city. Our lifestyle has improved much in last two generations (just two generations back our forefathers paid so much to remain Christians). Just opposite our society, a poor community of Hindus live. Most of them are little educated and blindly follow Hindutva. They have settled on an encroached land. Government has given them notices more than once but they don’t move. Most of them are unemployed and committed drunkards. All the Christians living in societies in their opposite have legal houses and legal water connections. Our ladies are working in hospitals as nurses and are educated. However, very often this group despise Christians and pass the comments saying ‘Here comes the ‘dhelas’ (people of the lowest communities) and tease our girls.  This happens almost every day when Christians go to their job. They seek opportunities to fight with the Christians. Ironically, these same people, when they go to other Hindus, who are relatively more educated and rich, they are looked down and considered lower castes.

In the urban area of Ahmedabad high caste Hindus live. Many of them are ardent followers of Hindutva and some of them follow ‘soft’ Hindutva. They want to unleash all the terror they could on Indian Christians charging them of conversion. Yet whenever a Western ‘Christian’ man visits Ahmedabad, they do not forget to serve him and let him know of the “Great Indian Civilization.” They try their best to please them and let them know that their Hindutva ideology is a glorious ideology and their culture the most tolerant culture. They say in India we are very tolerant and that we respect one another. If a patient dies in a hospital, the mob beats up the doctors and other staff. If an accident happens, then the angry mob beats up generally the one driving a bigger vehicle, because sympathy is for the one with smaller vehicle. Our roads are a perfect place to see how much we respect one another. Uneducated mob with a high religious fervor willing to unleash their anger on anyone. Is this what our great civilization is? Recently, and ironically on Republic Day, the Ram Sena beat up the girls in one pub of mangalore. Very great civilization indeed. This is not enough. If a man is not married at certain age, if a woman is childless, the samaj is always there to condemn these people. Parents, relatives and samaj has so high expectations from an individual that he/she hardly lives his/her life. And when one cannot fulfil these expectations and dreams, one moves into depression to the point of suicide. We have great concern for society, but no concern for an individual life. Where is love and respect that we talk so loudly about? Can an individual be free from these pressures? What if as a Christian I oppose all these? I am sure I will be considered an enemy of our ‘great civilization’. What I have mentioned above is the scenario in majority parts of India. The fact is: we do not like to listen anything, absolutely anything bad about us. If there is anyone bad in the world, it is the West. This blaming the west for every suffering of ours, is nothing but an effort to run away from our own responsibilities and take empty pride in our so called great civilization. We do not like to listen anything bad about us, and yet, quite ironically, we are the most TOLERANT people, aren’t we?

These are the issues that concerns us as Indians and as Christians. Can we pay attention to these issues also when we so loudly discuss about conversion?

Journeying with Today’s Hindu Nationalists

I was coming from Delhi to Ahmedabad. A man, with couple of big suitcases in his hands, rushed into train, since the train was about to leave. His talkative nature attracted everyone’s attention in the compartment. He complained incessantly about the condition of India under the UPA government and the rising terrorism. He lamented that benefits given to minorities in India by UPA government were actually an aid to bomb-making and terrorist activities. He said he was from Mathura but he had been to China and he appreciated the strict stance of Chinese government against the terrorism. But then he criticized the BJP as well, saying, ‘BJP ne hamari pith mein chhura bhonka hai.’ He soon revealed that he was an ardent follower of RSS ideology and the only person who could save India now was Gujarat’s CM Mr. Narendra Modi. Hearing this, two girls, who were barely in their twenties, and who quietly occupied the window seats till now, joined the song. They were from Ahmedabad. They claimed to follow the RSS ideology as well. One girl, who was louder and more outspoken, took pride that her mother had participated in demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The joy of victory on that day was still visible on her face. She continued to speak about the entrance of Western immorality in Indian society and decried the feared extinction of ‘Gujaratni asmita’ and Indian ‘sanskriti.’ She suggested that after all West needed Indian spirituality and that is why Yogas were famous in Western countries. The compartment had soon turned into nothing less than an RSS camp.

The whole discussion of more than 12 hours suggested at least one thing loud and clear, that Hindu nationalism survives on created phobia and blame game. The whole stream of Hindu nationalist thinkers had this fear of extinction. Did not Swami Dayanand Saraswati introduce ‘shuddhikaran’ to counter the conversion by Christian Missionaries? It was to save their flock from turning to other religion. Why does Hinduism which accepts all religions to be leading to the same God, should have these self-proclaimed guardians to protect people from converting to another religion, which may as well lead to the same God? Hindu nationalists do not follow the tenets of Hinduism.

Another weapon is blame game. How easily it is suggested that Muslims are terrorists and Christians convert. At another level, West is immoral and East is spiritual. Sadly, even educated class now buys into this labeling done by Hindu nationalists.

Do we need these self-proclaimed guardians of our culture to ‘force’ us to see what is right and what is wrong?

To Gunwantbhai

Dear Gunawantbhai,

I read your article about the relation between Christianity and conversion in ‘Vicharo naa Vrindavan maa”, dated October 5, 2008. I wanted to reply to your article, but could not get hold of your contact information, so I thought to put down some of my comments here. Hope you come across this response of mine.

I am a Gujarati Christian, and am proud of this identity. Your article has much to challenge me, and I hope that every Gujarati Christian finds it beneficial.

A Christianity that condemns gods and goddesses of other religion to promote its own goodness is much deplorable. A ‘holier than thou’ attitude is arrogance, and does not go along with Christian value of humility and love. I personally condemn such views and trust that majority of Christians would agree with me.

On the other hand, I must say that while much has been discussed, and especially in our vernacular newspapers, about conversion, the violence on Christian community in Orissa is sidelined. When at least 300 villages are burnt, more than 50 people murdered and 50000 people made homeless in Orissa, it does not suit an author of your stature to talk about ‘conversion.’ Some people call such incidents ‘sporadic’ and others blame it on ‘conversion’ and wash their hands off. You have written very passionately about ‘conversion,’ however, it would have been much appreciated if in a similar passionate lingo you had condemned the RSS-VHP mentality.

People have talked about ‘forced conversions’ and ‘lured conversions’ by Christians in Orissa and elsewhere. I, for one, strongly argue against this. In none of the Indian states, barring some of the North-eastern states, Christianity is majority. How can a small Christian population ‘force’ a majority Hindus to convert is a question. Most of the pastors I have personally met live hand to mouth and struggle for the education of their own children (while Advanis continue to come out of Christian schools). How can they ‘lure’ someone to accept their religion? Moreover, I do not think any Hindu is so gullible or so fearful that he would change his religion for a piece of bread or some ‘force’ (if any such force existed at all).

Nobody has gone to an Oriya Christian to ask him, how was he converted, by ‘force’ or by ‘token of some money’? Contrary to that, I have heard some Oriya Christians saying on television, “We will not leave Christ. We are willing to lay down our lives for him.” Can one say that these people were converted by force or by money? Dear Gunwantbhai, I am not asking your support for conversion, but I am asking your support for one’s freedom to choose his religion. Gandhiji did criticize conversion, but he never supported the idea that one should be killed for choosing the religion of his choice either. But today my brothers and sisters in Orissa are certainly FORCED (by the saffron brigade) to live in jungles, because their houses are burnt down. They are afraid to come out, even to relief camps. We don’t see the Christian clergymen going around with weapons in their hands to convert people forcefully, only VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal do that. They move about the cities of India, with weapons in their hands in the broad daylight to show off their muscle power, and then call it ‘Shastrapuja.’

I am very hurt to see that while Christians are accused of converting people forcefully, the real perpetrators of the law and murderers of humanity go free. Even media, and certainly Gujarati media, seems to be either biased and saffronized or afraid of them.

Dear Gunwantbhai, when police has not given us protection, the media has a bias against us and when the government has failed to curb the killings of Christians, should not a voice of moderate Hindus be the need of the hour rather than the issue of conversion? But how many articles do we read in Gujarati newspapers that condemn the RSS-VHP ideology? There are certainly plenty of articles written about the conversion manifesto and the fear of extinction of Hinduism. (I had to stop buying a particular newspaper for this reason).

You said in your article, “banne dharmo [Islam and Christianity] swabhave vistaarvadi chhe.” As a Christian I must confess that we are ‘vistaarvadi,’ but this has nothing to do with growing our numbers, it is about expanding the ‘vistaar’ of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. This kingdom does not indulge in number-game, but is founded on the values that God gives preference to: truth, love, righteousness, integrity and equality. I earnestly desire that this kingdom continues to grow.

I appreciate your desire to maintain the unity of country and, therefore, your concern that minority should not be isolated. This concern of yours gives me confidence that majority of Hindus still do not agree with the ideology of RSS and are mindful about a tiny minority as ours. I, as an Indian Christian, am equally worried about the unity of this country, and am willing to contribute everything possible to preserve it.

While in a rally to protest against the killings of Christians in Orissa, I saw a placard with a message that has become my prayer for my brothers and sisters in India, “Give us an opportunity to serve you.” Jesus came to serve this world, and incidents like these can not deter his followers from walking in his footsteps and serving the community.

Thank You.