Shrinking the freedom of conscience

By Gladson Dungdung

Indian Currents

 18 May, 2003

“Communal threat is a political conspiracy to oppress, suppress and depress Dalits, Tribals as well as women because most of the leaders (men & women) of the Dalit and Tribal community, questioning the status quo, are either from the Christian community (converted) or are products of Missionary Schools. These leaders also generate awareness among their people to fight for justice and dignity, consequently the Dalits, Tribals and women resist doing Swarnas dirty works”.

Communalism has become a great threat to Indian Democracy today. Communal hatred is on rampage, which comes as a great shock to a country where the saints of non-violence like Mahavir, Buddha and Gandhi had presented the great principles of truth and non-violence. Communalism is a phenomenon where innocent people have been discriminated, assaulted, tortured, and killed only because of their belief in a particular religion or creed. The peculiar thing about this violence is that the people who commit this heinous crime go unpunished most of the time. After the states of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu Government enacted the Anti-conversion law; the Gujarat Govt also enacted the controversial anti-conversion Act called the freedom to religion Act 2003. The Act not only shows the interest of the state to the issue of faith more than to pressing issues of food, clothing and shelter but it is also a great threat to the democracy and minority communities as well. It is an irony that the citizens are denied the freedom to religion in the name of freedom of religion.

The father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi had a very clear idea of keeping distance between religion and the state. Once he said, “I am a sanatani Hindu. I will give my life for my religion. But it is my personal matter. About India whose fashioning I am struggling for, that will be totally secular. Neither my religion will dictate the State, nor State will dictate my religion”. (Quoted in Punyani, 2001). The state is slowly becoming a dictator, killing the spirit of democracy. The state has already seized its citizen’s freedom to faith. Now the state dictates terms on citizens matters such as to whom to worship, what to do and what not, to be a vegetarian or not, how to dress, whether kids will be taught Vedas or astrology, and so on.

Secularism is the foundation of Indian democracy. We adopted the Constitution accepting India as a secular democratic country. It is clearly written in the Preamble to the constitution “We” the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic and to secure to all its citizens… Also the fundamental rights give right to the freedom of religion. It is clearly mentioned in the Constitution of India, article 25 that the citizens are free to profess, practice and propagate any religion within the territory of the India. Secularism is being interpreted in different ways, which has led to misunderstanding among the people who believe in the religion. The exact concept of the secularism is a state that would not proclaim a particular religion. It means that the state follows the spirit of Sarwa dharma Sambhawa, where religion will be kept separate from politics.

Here one has to look and analyze the need and importance of the freedom to religion Act 2003 to understand the role of the state for shrinking freedom of conscience. There are some important features of the Act is a person, who wants to change his/her religion, must have to apply for permission of the district magistrate. It means that the district magistrate will decide and ensure the faith of the citizen. The Act seeks to punish a person who converts or attempts to convert any person by use of “force, allurement or any fraudulent means” with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and also a fine that may extend to Rs. 50,000. Whoever contravenes these provisions in respect of a minor, a woman or a person belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled Tribe shall be imprisoned for up to four years and charged a fine up to Rs. 1 lakh. Even the scholarship is given to the students, relief work, community development and social works are done by the Missionaries Institutions are come under the allurement in the Act.

The Act itself seems fraud and based on patriarchal principles and fully influenced by Sangh Parivar. It would be quite difficult for a person to get permission of the district collector for changing the religion because the collector will must obey the instructions of the state govt. rather than paying attention to the people’s sentiments and interests, which the state has witnessed the passive role of bureaucrats during communal riots in Gujarat because the state government paralyzed them. There is also doubt of misusing the Act, which would be a cause to punish the innocent people. Misusing of POTA by the State Government is a crucial example for it.

Advocating for Dalit, Tribals and women Modi & Company show more love for them in the Act. But this pseudo love is revealed in analysis the miserable situation of Dalit, Tribal and women i.e. the Untouchability was abolished by the Constitution of India and also by the protection of civil rights Act 1955 but Untouchability is still existed because of the so-called caste system. Do Modi & Company even talk about removing of caste system from the society? Again there is no need for a new law for the protection of Dalit and Tribal’s faith because the culprits can be punished severely under the SC/ST prevention of atrocities act 1989. Where were Modi, BJP, and Sangh Parivar’s love when 5 Dalits were lynched allegedly in Jhajjar for cow skinning? BJP and Sangh Parivar showed more love for the cow than for the Dalit. If they are committed for the cause of women, why do not they reform Hindu religion which treats women as a slave e.g. “by a girl, by a young women, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, husband must be constantly worshipped as a God by a faithful wife” (Bhargava, 1989, 51:54]. They show more interest on Bill for protection of holy Cow rather than the women’s interest. Why do not they bother when starvation death takes place in the tribal hamlets in the remote part of Orissa? Obviously, it is not the matter of protection of Dalit, Tribal, or women’ s faith but it is the matter of vested interest in the name of Hindutava through the political game. This aspect is well articulated by veteran Journalist B.G. Verghese: Hindutava is neither Hindu nor religion but low-grade political theatres it is. (Verghese: 2003, 20).

The Freedom to Religion Act is passed to restrict spread of Christianity as well as other religions. A deeper introspection of the Christian population is important to understand the rhetoric of conversion. The Christian population has been steadily declining in India when we tend to believe that forcible conversions into Christianity are on. The Christian population as per 1971 was 2.60%, in 1981 2.44%, in 1991 2.32%, and in 2001, it stands at 2.18%. Census report of Gujarat says there were 0.43 percent Christian in 1991, while in 2001 it stands at 0.42.

One has to explore the reason to understand the fact of the conversion. Major reasons can be found either in Jhajjar where cows get more respect than Dalit, in Jharkhand where the tribal (converted) are empowered, or in the Kashmir where Missionaries are committed to the cause of the people giving healing touch, education, love & affection and guidance to the broken hearted, downtrodden, destitute, women and even the leprosy patients who were not allowed to integrate in the so-called society. Dalits change their faith because they are treated as lesser humans, Tribal accept Christianity because they find love, commitment and freedom, and women convert because they are treated as not only second-class human being but so-called Varna system also not allowed them to raise their voice in the man-dominated society. They were kept out from the society like footwear outside the house.

Missionaries are often alleged for using fraud, force or allurement for conversion. In fact, the only fraud being used in matter of religion is by the Government of India’s Census Department, which lists all Sarnas and other Tribals as Hindu. The only forcible conversions are those conducted in Ghar Vapsi programmes and purification are driven by men like a Dilip Singh Judev, who has been rewarded for his deeds and made the minister of the State for Forests in the central government.

Modi, BJP and Sangh Parivar seem very happy playing with the people’s sentiment dividing people in the name of religion, violating the constitution, changing history, incorporating astrology in education syllabus, presenting Gandhi as the villain, projecting Birsa Munda as a God to attract Tribals, adoring Ambedkar to get vote of the Dalit, forming Durga Vahini to get the support of women, bringing bill to ban on cow slaughter luring Cow’s lovers and so on. But all these lead them into the wrong direction, which implication was already seen during assembly election in Himachal Pradesh where they were defeated.

It is an irony for a secular country, where the political parties ask for votes on the basis of religion and nobody bothers about it. A villain like Narendra Modi gets a King’s berth as a reward for propagating communal hatred. Even the speech is given by the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is full of communal hatred. He claims that the construction of Ram Temple is a question of national sentiment. He gave statement at his party’s national executive in Goa saying, “Where there are Muslims, there are problems”. He also justifies the Gujarat genocide saying Gujarat carnage would not have occurred but for the Godhra arson. They even promote communal hatred through cricket matches, which was seen recently during world cup when our Finance Minister Mr. Jaswant singh made an announcement of tax exemption for the cricketers after winning the match against Pakistan.

Communal threat is a political conspiracy to oppress, suppress and depress Dalits, Tribals as well as women because most of the leaders (men & women) of the Dalit and Tribal community, questioning the status quo, are either from the Christian community (converted) or are products of Missionary Schools. These leaders also generate awareness among their people to fight for justice and dignity, consequently the Dalits, Tribals and women resist doing Swarnas dirty works. The so-called Swarnas know that their babu giri (order) will come to an end. The only way left to trap people is religion and they don’t want to give up it.

Today, more than ever it is a great challenge for people who believe in secular democratic principles to preserve not only democracy but also religion from fundamentalists. We need to oppose those who propagate communal hatred in the name of religion across the country. People need to be made aware about the more important issues facing the cross section of the society like poverty, unemployment, livelihood, health, education etc. Generating awareness about democracy and religion, creating fraternity among different communities, and even promoting inter-religion marriages should also be attempted. We have to decide whether we need democracy, unity with diversity, communal harmony or blood shed in the name of religion.



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