Is saving souls a good way of saving democracy?

NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: The religious violence in Udupi and Chikmagalur, caused by the “rising anger over Christian conversions,” shows two things different this time round.

First, “the other” is not Muslim but Christian—Catholics, Baptists and Pentacostals. Second, the venue is not Orissa/ Gujarat but pristine Karnataka.

The 207 members of India’s Constituent Assembly, hardly kindred souls otherwise, recognized that protecting the identity and dignity of minorities would be the agni pariksha of India’s liberal democracy. That’s how Articles 25 and 26 emerged as guarantors of religious freedom. 

Now, a freedom may be properly defined not in the positive but in the negative. That is, to truly understand religious freedom we need to know its limit: How far may Indians go in practicing and propagating a chosen religion?

Hindu dharma, famously, has no theory of proselytisation

But some other faiths do: Islam and Christianity, particularly, have adherents who may assume a religious duty to convert, to evangelise, to save souls. So the limits prescribed to Articles 25 and 26 may be better understood in a context of those faiths.

What are the limits? 

There are a few, but one is particularly confounding – “public order.” 

For example, Article 25 establishes sustenance of “public order” as a condition to the right to practice and propagate religion. It states, “Subject to public order. . . all persons are equally entitled to. . . the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.”

Article 26 mandates that “subject to public order” may religious institutions be established.

India’s Supreme Court, classically liberal in interpreting freedoms of expression, has struggled to interpret “public order,” a phrase which appears about ten times in the Constitution. 

And that may be the crux of the controversy: What exactly is “public order”?

Some Indian States have successfully argued that religious conversion is in itself a deficiency of “public order.” It’s an argument upon which at least four States have adopted laws which forbid religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “inducement,” terms which Christian missionaries criticise as vague or overbroad. In those states—Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa—illegal conversions attract imprisonment as well as civil fines.

Some Hindu leaders contend that to target the poor, the illiterate or those disadvantaged by caste is predatory or inherently unethical, as those converts came from social circumstances which pre-empted any informed or independent judgment.

Others go as far as to dub conversions a form of social violence with severe effects on regional demographics and local cultures.

But terrible as it is, violent reaction to religious conversion finds little record in India’s history, ancient or medieval—not even in the accounts produced by invading forces (not by indigenous peoples) such as those of Alexander (4th century BC), Ghazni Mahmud (11th century AD), Ghori Muhammad and the Turks (12th century), Timur (14th century), Babur (16th century), the East India Company (17th-18th century) and the British Raj (mid-19th century).

Regardless of one’s position on religious conversion, violence against minorities is clearly a cancer: Political scientists may have no consensus on what democracy means, but they all agree the meaning would include protections for minorities.

If Karnataka home minister V.S. Acharya fails to act decisively against the vandals of Udupi and Chikmagalur, he will not only wound our democracy, he may give a stick to the skeptics to beat us with.

For instance, here is Yale don Robert Dahl’s snarky old quip about India’s minorities: “Whether they like it or not, most Indians are destined to remain citizens of India. Because disunion is impossible, the only alternative is union, within India.”

Also read: Are all conversions voluntary?

CHURUMURI POLL: Should conversions be allowed?

What does God have to do with conversions?