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No mass conversions, please

No mass conversions, please

Author: Saeed Naqvi
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 30, 2000

The unseemly rash of attacks on Christian missionaries has once again brought centre-stage the entire issue of conversions.  The problem lies at the heart of India's civilisational turbulence through the centuries.

Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Marxism, Socialism, Capitalism, are all linear, proselytising systems, constantly looking for ways to cut into each other's space.  There has always been a fundamental difficulty when these linear, proselytising systems come into contact with a circular system, one that does not proselytise.

What occasions this piece is a rare document I have come across in the course of browsing through some old papers.  It is a letter written by Maulana Azad, as education minister, to Cardinal Gracias.

But why did Azad feel the need to write such a letter? Apparently, controversy arose when Kailashnath Katju, then Home Minister, during a debate on foreign Christian missionaries in the Lok Sabha said.  "If missionaries come to India only for evangelical work, then I commend to them the thought that they stop coming here".

This statement created a stir among Christian missionaries.  Finally, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Azad to tackle the situation.

In his letter to Cardinal Gracias the Maulana writes:
"Let me assure you that we are fully aware of the outstanding work foreign missionaries have done over the past 150 years in the field of education and other humanitarian fields.  For years, the East India Company was opposed to imparting education to the Indians.  It was a missionary society which opened the first school and college to impart modern education to Indians.  "After India's independence, ma-ny missionary societies asked us if they would be allowed to continue their work and we encouraged them to continue the good work.

"You have completely misunderstood the Home Minister's statement in Parliament.

"The Home Minister expressed the sensible view that methods adopted by some missionary societies to indulge in mass conversions were wrong and would be considered objectionable.  There is nothing new in what the Home Minister has said.  Since independence we have discussed the matter with countless responsible missionary organisations and they have sympathised with the government's point of view".

Then Azad addresses the issue of "mass conversions":
"The acceptable way for religious conversion is simple: if an adult reflects on the faith he has been born into and feels intellectually compelled to adopt another faith, he has all the protection in the constitution to exercise his free choice.  This kind of conversion is a function of pr-oper balance betw-een the heart and the mind.

"But there is another method of conversion: of social reasons or for a common cause, a large group of people makes up its mind to defect from one religion to another.  If each individual of this group were asked to explain why he left the faith of his forebears, I am certain he will not be able to advance a reason persuasive enough that such a person has actually reflected on the question of religion and truth.  On most occasions such groups are composed of people who have no education, people who are singularly incapable of making up their minds on issues that inform a matter as serious a religious belief.

"Obviously such conversions cannot be called religious conversions.  Instead of conversion this sort of a shift should be called by some other name.  The Constituent Assembly called it "mass conversions".

"Similarly, conversion of young children, who have not developed a sense of right and wrong, cannot be considered as true religious conversion.

"As far as the first category of true religious conversion is concerned, the Indian Constitution gives the right to every individual to preach his particular faith and the recipients of such preaching have every right to change their faith.

"But as far as the second category of mass conversions are concerned, I am sure you, like the Christian members of the Constituent Assembly, will agree with our view that such conversion is not true religious conversion.

"I have had numerous discussions with foreign missionaries in 1947 and 1948 and they all agreed with me.  I am sure you too will see the sense in our point of view and desist from the practice of mass conversions".

I am sure all manner of motives will be imputed in the publication of this letter in today's charged atmosphere.  Such a letter will give a handle to communalists, it will divide Muslims and Christians and so on.

When the whole question of mass conversions is staring us in the face, I believe the views of the Maulana can only help in shedding light on the discussion from a particular angle.

It is another matter that the issue is so much in the national focus largely for political reasons.  There is another theory gaining currency to explain the rash of attacks on Christians.  They are soft targets, good enough to generate controlled tension which can be accelerated at will to induce majoritarian consolidation.

A debate on mass conversions to shed intellectual light on the issue has some validity.  But conversions as a theme to generate communalism will only boomerang as the UP panchayat results have shown.

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