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Respect an Individual's Decision

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My last column has triggered an overwhelming response. Gratifyingly, many readers (including several describing themselves as believing Hindus) are as outraged as I was at the anti-Christian thuggery that has been perpetrated in the name of Hinduism. Killers of children are not Hindus, even if they claim to be acting on behalf of their faith; it is as simple as that. Murder does not have a religion -- even when it claims a religious excuse.

Of course, it is easy enough to condemn anti-Christian violence because it is violence, and because it represents a threat to law and order as well as to that nebulous idea we call India's 'image'. But an argument that several readers have made needs to be faced squarely. In the words of one correspondent: could the violence ''be a reaction to provocations from those religions that believe that only their path is the right path and the rest of humanity are infidels?'' He went on to critique ''the aggressive strategy being pursued by some interests in the US to get people in India converted en masse to Christianity, not necessarily by means fair.''

In his view, ''aggressive evangelism directed against India by powerful church organisations in America enjoying enormous money power, has only one focused objective -- to get India into the Christian fold, as they have succeeded, to a considerable extent, in South Korea and are now in the process of conquering Mongolia.'' Arguing that ''mass conversions of illiterates and semi-literates -- and they also happen to be poor, extremely poor'' is exploitative, he concluded: ''powerful organisations from abroad with enormous money power indulging in mass conversion'' are ''a destabilising factor provoking retaliation''.

I have great respect for the reader in question, but on this issue I strongly disagree. I cannot accept any justification for the thugs' actions, nor am I prepared to see behind the violence an ''understandable'' Hindu resistance to Christian zealotry. Put simply, no non-violent activity, however provocative, can ever legitimise violence. We must reject and denounce assaults and killings, whatever they may claim to be reacting to. Our democracy will not survive if we condone people resorting to violence in pursuit of their ends, however genuine and heartfelt their grievances may be. The whole point of our system of governance is that it allows all Indians to resolve their concerns through legitimate means, including seeking legal redress or political change -- but not violence.

Let us assume, for the purposes of argument, that Christian missionaries are indeed using a variety of inducements (development assistance, healthcare, education, sanitation, even chicanery -- though there is only anecdotal evidence of missionary ''trickery'') to win converts for their faith. So what? If a citizen of India feels that his faith has not helped him to find peace of mind and material fulfillment, why should he not have the option of trying a different item on the spiritual menu? Surely freedom of belief is any Indian's fundamental right under our democratic Constitution, however ill-founded his belief might be.

And if Hindu zealots suspect that conversion was fraudulently obtained, why do they not offer counter-inducements rather than violence? Instead of destroying churches, perhaps a Hindu-financed sewage system or paathshala might reopen the blinkered eyes of the credulous. Better still, perhaps Christians and Hindus (and Muslims and Baha'is, for that matter) could all compete in our villages to offer material temptations for religious conversions. The development of our poor country might actually accelerate with this sort of spiritual competition.

Of course i am being frivolous there, but my point is a serious one. Freedom of conscience is not a negotiable right. An India where an individual is not free to change his or her faith would be inconceivable. Some have been citing Gandhiji's criticism of conversions, but his view was based on an eclectic, all-embracing view of religiousness that is a far cry from the narrow bigotry of those who today quote him in opposing conversions. Gandhiji's point was that there was no need to convert from any religion to any other because all religions essentially believed the same thing. But when he famously asserted that ''I am a Hindu, a Christian, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Jew'', Jinnah sharply retorted, ''only a Hindu could say that!''

The fact is that many faiths do tend to see theirs as the only true path to salvation, and their religious leaders feel a duty to spread the light of a supposedly superior understanding of God to those less fortunate. As Gandhians or as rationalists we are free to decry their views, but the Indian Constitution gives each Indian the right to ''propagate'' his religion -- and to challenge that right would, in the most fundamental sense, be unconstitutional.

So, let each religion do its thing, and let each Indian be free to choose. At the same time, let conversion be an issue of individual conscience and not mass delusion. I would have no difficulty in considering, in principle, the idea of a democratically-elected legislature deciding that the constitutionally-protected right to convert to another faith can only be exercised by an individual, rather than by an entire clan, tribe or village.

An end to ceremonies of mass conversion might not be a bad thing: let each individual who believes he or she has seen the light go through an individual act of conversion -- one in which he or she must affirm that they know what they are giving up and what they are entering into. If an entire village wants to convert, that will make for a very time-consuming process, but at least it will not be open to the suggestion that a large group has been duped, or forced, collectively to embrace a faith that its individual members do not properly understand.

Of course, the debate is not merely a religious one -- it is profoundly political. So i will brace myself for more mail and return to the topic next week.

This post originally appeared in the Times of India.