George Menezes, May 27, 2006, Hindustan Times
The Church and community was just recovering from the embarrassment of allowing a small coterie of misinformed fundamentalists with personal agendas to hijack what could have been a rational and informed debate on the screening of The Da Vinci Code. Just as we were moving into the comfort of our Catholic beds, we have been rudely woken up by the Pope and our Mumbai Cardinal to a fresh controversy — this time, on conversions.
I am against forceful and fraudulent conversion of people from one faith to another. My understanding of true conversion is best illustrated by the story of my friend and neighbour, Joseph.
Joseph used to service my car when I lived at Pedder Road. He lived in a one-room tenement near the Kemps Corner flyover. One day, he picked up a dying man whom he used to see every day outside Grant Road station. For six months he cared for this man as if he was his own father. He tended the maggot-ridden body, medicated his sores and prayed over him.
When the man had fully recovered and was saying goodbye, he asked Joseph, “Who is this man, Jesus, whom you talk about all the time?” “Would you like to follow him?” asked Joseph. “If he's someone like you, I surely would,” said the man.
I think of conversion as the embracing of the religion of someone who truly gives exemplary witness to the genuine teachings of his faith. Legislation to attempt to prevent this does not bother me because I have an equal faith in the Constitution of my country.
I have known the Holy Father personally during my five-year membership of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. I have had the privilege of being ‘ticked’ off by him publicly when I disagreed with him on the subject of ‘power’ in the hierarchical church.
Unfortunately, I do not know Cardinal Ivan Dias personally although he has been the Shepherd of my diocese for many years.
Knowing both of them closely or distantly, I can say that they mean well. If they have raised the issue of legislation to ban conversions, they have done it in the context of Jesus' call to all Christians to spread the Good News.
Unfortunately, the message has been conveyed at the wrong place at an inopportune moment. The Holy Father is the Head of a religion that has millions of adherents all over the world. He can have himself invited as a State guest to any country. He can pick up the phone and speak to presidents and prime ministers.
He does not need the occasion of the Indian Ambassador's presentation of credentials to convey a message that “there are disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of India” and that the laws to ban religious conversions are discriminatory and impinge on the right to religious freedom.
In my personal opinion, the legislation to ban conversions is not worth the paper on which it is printed. All these legislations can be challenged in the Supreme Court. They can also be opposed by massive nonviolent agitations. They do not need Papal intervention.
On March 29, 1979, the Society for the Protection of Fundamental Rights (of which I happened to be the President) was able to organise a peaceful march of 1,50,000 people of every single Christian denomination in the heart of South Bombay to protest against the Tyagi Anti-Conversion Bill and the unjustified de-recognition of St John's Medical College, Bangalore. This was followed by a rally at Azad Maidan.
On Good Friday, April 1, 1979, 50,000 people with black banners lined up the route of then Prime Minister Morarji Desai' s motorcade from the airport to Mahim Causeway. Morarji Desai met us and invited us for a discussion in Delhi on the 19th of April 1979. Subsequently, OP Tyagi's bill was withdrawn.
Today, the Church and community appear to have neither the will nor the unity to replicate such a protest. Very little water has flowed down Mumbai's Mithi River since those days in 1979 when the first attempt was made to bring an anti-conversion bill into Parliament.
Today, anti-conversion bills do not really want to deal with forced and fraudulent conversions because such a thing hardly exists. Chief secretaries and collectors in the states of Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, when asked about the number of forced and fraudulent conversions they have seen, caught or punished in the last 25 years, confessed that the number was zero.
Jayalalithaa got one such bill passed to woo the Hindutva BJP and then withdrew it (partially), which only exposes the sham behind such legislation.
What is dangerous is the intent behind such legislation. It is clear that in our caste-ridden society, such anti-conversion bills only help to divide citizens and their privileges and rights on the basis of religion and to keep Dalit Christians out of the paternal love of Indian law that is provided in the Constitution.
They also help to polarise and Hindu-ise the polity. They help to win political advantage. The vagueness of the clauses makes it convenient for subservient police and civic officials to harass the people.
In fact, the real fear in the warped minds of the micro-minority of Hindu fundamentalists is not conversions but the fantastic and successful developmental work the Church is doing among the poor and marginalised who have been left out of the agendas of successive governments.
The accusation of conversions against Mother Teresa, Graham Staines and the nuns who were ousted from the leprosy home in Gujarat, the killing of Sr Rani Maria, who worked to liberate people from the clutches of moneylenders, and the persecution of Padmashree MA Thomas of the Emmanuel Mission in Kota are few examples.
Hindu fundamentalists have realised that the church in its true avatar is not interested in ‘numbers’ who can be bought and sold like MLAs who change parties. They know that Jesus-inspired Christians have a mission “to bring good news to the poor, to tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more, to make blind people see and set the downtrodden free” — an agenda that has threatened the mightiest of establishments in countries all over the world.
I do not blame Hindu fundamentalists with their upper-caste agendas for feeling threatened. I blame Christians who are so poorly formed in their faith, and I blame the hierarchy of the Church which has not succeeded in instilling in their people courage and unity against the assaults that are, and will always be, the occupational hazards of those who decide to pursue truth and justice.
To the Holy Father, to whom I offer my allegiance, I want to say that Indian Christians of all denominations, properly formed in the faith and in collaboration with the Hierarchy, can be fully capable of handling their problems. It only requires that the leaders, both of the clergy and laity, allow new and even dissenting voices in the stuffy precincts of their decision-making rooms.
To Cardinal Ivan Dias, in offering my prayers on his new assignment, I would like to say that he and his fellow bishops need not have waited for a cue from the Holy Father, but should have, these many years, vociferously and publicly protested against the documented atrocities committed not only against Christians but also against women who are abused by the police, innocent people who have been killed, maimed and raped by the Armed Forces in Kashmir and Manipur and all those thousands denied of their human rights in all parts of the country.
(The author is a Management Consultant and was, in the 80s, a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the Vatican and a member of the Asian Bishops’ Think Tank)