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Mahatma Gandhi and Makers of Constitution on Conversion

Mahatma Gandhi and Makers of Constitution on Conversion

Author: Ram Gopal
Publication: The Organiser
Date: July 2, 2000

In India, Christian missionaries of many shades had been at work for centuries, but they made major strides during the British Raj. However during the last ten -years of Independent India, their number, their financial resources (mostly from' abroad), their propaganda material, their strategies, and their tirade against Hindu relation and Hindu deities have multiplied in a phenomenal Way, with political overtones.

Hindu reaction, on the other hand, had been nil upto the mid-nineteenth century. Some alarming bells started ringing through the Arya Samaj and the freedom fighters at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1921, in reply to a question, "What is the contribution of Christianity to the national life of India?", from an evangelist of international fame, Dr John Mott, even Gandhiji had to say, "Christianity in India is inextricably mixed up for the last hundred fifty years With the British rule. It appears to us as synonymous with materialistic civilisation and imperialistic exploitation by the stronger White races of the weaker races of the world. Its contribution to India has been therefore largely of a negative character." An extract from further conversation between Gandhiji and Dr, Mott is given below:

Dr Mott: "What has interested me most, is your work in connection with the removal of untouchability... What is the most hopeful sign indicating that this institution is, as you say, on its last legs?"

Gandhiji: "It is the reaction that is taking place in orthodox Hinduism and the swiftness with which it has come about. As a most illustrious example, I will mention Pandit Malaviya.... Today he takes pride in administering the mantra of purification to the untouchables by the bank of the Ganges, sometimes even incurring the wrath of unreasoning orthodoxy."

Dr Mott: "But My impression was that Christians would be a great-help to you in this connection. Rev. Whitehead... made some very striking statements abut the effect of Christian mass movement in ameliorating the condition of the untouchables."

Gandhiji: "I distrust mass movement of this nature. They have as their object not the upliftment of the untouchables but their ultimate conversion. Th is motive of mass proselytization lurking at the background vitiates missionary effort."

Dr Mott: "There are some who seriously believe that the untouchables would be better off if 'they turned Christians from conviction, and that it would transform their lives for the better."

Gandhiji: "I am sorry I have been unable to discover any tangible evidence to confirm this view. I was once taken to a Christian village. Instead of meeting among the converts with that frankness which one associates with a spiritual transformation, I found an air of, evasiveness about them. They were afraid to talk. This struck me as a change not for the better but for the worse."

Dr Mott : "Do you then disbelieve in all conversion?"

Gandhiji : "I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never be to undermine another's faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and respect for them....."

Dr Mott: "Is it not our duty to help fellow beings to the maximum of truth that we may possess, to share with them our deepest spiritual experiences?"

Gandhiji : "I must again differ from you, for the simple reason that the deepest spiritual truths are always unutterable... It radiates its influence silently as the rose its fragrance without the intervention of a medium."

Dr Mott : "But even God sometimes speaks through His chosen prophets."

Gandhiji : "Yes, but the prophets speak not through the tongue but through their lives. A have, however, known that in this matter I am up against a solid wall of Christian opinion."

Dr Mott : "Oh, no. Even among Christians there is a school of thought-and it is growing which holds that the authoritarian method should not be employed, but that each individual should be left to discover the deepest truths for himself.. In other words they feel that propaganda in the accepted sense of the term is not the most effective method."

Gandhiji: "I am glad to hear you say this. That is what Hinduism certainly inculcates."
(Mahatma, Vol. II, pp. 449-51, by D.G. Tendulkar)

Again in 1938, when some American and Indian Christian teachers went to Gandhiji and asked him about the role which the Christian missions could play in an independent India, Gandhiji expressed the same views that he had 17 years ago before Dr Mott. He added, "My personal view, therefore, is that if you feel that Indians have a message to give to the world, that India's religions are true, although like all religions imperfect, for having percolated through imperfect human agency, and you come as fellow helpers and fellow seekers, there is a place for you here. But if you come as preachers of the 'true Gospel' to a people who are wandering in darkness, so far as I am concerned, you can have no place. You may impose yourself upon us." (Mahatma by D.G. Tendulkar, Vol. V. pp 4-5, Publications Division, Government of India).

It would be observed that what the RSS, the VHP, or the BJP, says today about the Christian missionaries is, in no way, different from what Gandhiji himself said long before. Following the Gandhian thought on Hindu religion, untouchability, and Christian missionaries, the RSS, through its. Seva Bharati and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram is engaged in removing caste discrimination from the vast Hindu society, helping the poor SCs, STs to stand on their feet and also to withstand the religious onslaught of the Christian missionaries. They are reconverting only those who had a generation or two back adopted Christianity or Islam due to ignorance or other compelling reasons

In the Constituent Assembly, in 1947, there was a prolonged, and animated debate on the provision relating to religious freedom and conversion. The VHP, the BJP or its earlier version Jana Sangh did not then exist. Almost all Congress members were against the inclusion of the word "propagation" as part of religious freedom. Only the Christian and Anglo-Indian representatives, especially Frank Anthony, wanted it. The Advisory Committee headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Congress) had suggested in April 1947 the following two clauses:

1) All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion subject to public order, morality or health, and to other provisions of this Chapter (Fundamental Rights).

2) Conversion from one religion to another brought about by coercion or undue influence shall not be recognised by law.

During discussions held in the Constituent Assembly on May 1, 1947, the first clause was passed without much debate, but the second clause relating to conversion faced stiff opposition. Shri K.M. Munshi suggested that minors under 18 years of age should also be included in the prohibited category. Frank Anthony agreed that conversions by coercion; fraud, or undue influence should not be recognised by law, but opposed to ban conversion of minors. Shri P. R. Thakur, a representative of the depressed classes, said :

"You know well, Sir, that the victims of these religious conversions are ordinarily from the depressed classes. The preachers of other religions approach these classes of people, take advantage of their ignorance, extend all sorts of temptations and ultimately convert them..."

Shri Purushottam Das Tandon said

"...Most Congressmen are opposed to the idea of 'propagation'. But we agreed to keep the word 'propagate' out of regard for our Christian friends... But, now to ask us to agree to minors also being converted is, I think, Sir, going too far."

Shri Algu Rai Shastri said:

"Wherever the Europeans or the White races have gone, they have as Missionaries. A study of Prosperous India by Digby shows that 'Cross was followed by sword'... The missionary was followed by the batons, the swords and the guns. It was in this way that they employed coercion for spreading their religion and for extending their empire... The elders of the family are induced through prospects of financial gain to change their religion and with them the children are taken over to the fold of the new religion... Dewton writes that the Christian population of Assam has increased 300 times and attributes this increase to certain evils in Hindu society. The bitterness of the present is due to such activities... You tempt the innocent little ones whom you take in your lap, by a suit of clothes, a piece of bread and a little toy and thus you ruin their lives..."

Quoting the Swiss, Irish and Soviet constitutions, Shri Jagat Narain Lal said that no modern constitution in the world conceded right to propagate. He added, "This House has gone the farthest limit possible with regard to the minorities, knowing well the fact that there are a few minorities in this country whose right to carry on propaganda extends to the point of creating difficulties. Honourable Tondonji has rightly interpreted the mind of most of us... I want to appeal... not to press for too much... That would be taking undue advantage of the generosity of the majority."

Dr B.R. Ambedkar opposed K.M. Munshi's amendment on the ground that the question of minors would pose legal problem. He advised that the States could better make legislation with regard to conversions. On Sardar Patel's suggestion, the House agreed to refer back the conversion clause to the Advisory Committee once again. Now, the Committee recommended its deletion altogether. When the matter again came up before the Constituent Assembly on August 30, 1947, Shri Ananthasayanam Ayyangar and Shri R.V. Dhulekar forcefully pointed out the dangers inherent in the policy of conversion. A Muslim member, Shri Hussain Imam, said: "Forcible conversion is the highest degree of undesirable thing. But, it is not proper, as the Sardar himself has admitted, to provide it in the justiciable fundamental rights." Thus, on technical grounds, the Constituent Assembly kept the clause on conversion out from the Chapter of Fundamental Rights in the fond hope that necessary legislation in this regard would be framed by the State Legislatures and Parliament.

The conversion controversy arose once again in the Constituent Assembly on December 3 and 6, 1948, during the discussion on Article 19 (now Article 25) when Shri Tajamul Hussain said :

"Religion should be a private affair. Why should I ask you to attain salvation according to my way, or why should you ask me to attain salvation according to your way? If you accept this proposition, then why propagate religion? .... If you start propagating religion in this country, you will become nuisance to others. So far it has become a nuisance."

Shri Lokanath Mishra (Congress) said :
"To my mind if Article 13 of the Draft Constitution (Fundamental Rights) is a charter for liberty. Article 19 (right to propagate religious) is a character for Hindu enslavement. I do really feel that this is a disgraceful Article, the blackest part of the Draft Constitution. I beg to submit that I have studied -all the constitutional precedents and have not found anywhere any mention of the word 'propagate' as a Fundamental Right relating to religion.... tabooing religion and yet making propagation of religion a fundamental right is somewhat uncanny and dangerous... It can only mean paving the way for the complete annihilation of Hindu culture, the Hindu way of life... If people should propagate their religion, let them do so. Only I crave, let not the Constitution put it as a fundamental right and encourage it. Fundamental Rights are inalienable and once they are admitted, it will create bad blood. Drop the word 'propagate' in Article 19 (25 in the final version) at least. Civilisation is going headlong to the melting pot. Let us beware and try to survive."

Few members, like Pandit Lakshmi Kant Maitra, Shri Krishnaswami Bharati, Shri K. Santhanam and Shri K.M. Munshi prevailed on the House not to be pessimistic, stressed on the need for a compromise with a small minority like the Christians, and, referring to the conditions, namely, public order, morality and health, attached to tile right to religious freedom and other coercive state powers to intervene, assured that them was no chance of the word "propagate" acquiring "that kind of cataclysm which we have seen (in the recent past)."

Thus, while the Christians got the right to "propagate", there was no corresponding Article to stop conversions brought about by coercion or undue influence because the Constituent Assembly felt that the State Legislatures or Parliament (or both) could make detailed laws to meet the situation.
 


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