Conversion as protest?

Valson Thampu

Reportedly a thousand members belonging to 225 Arundhadhiar families near Coimbatore decided to convert to Christianity in protest against the caste-based discrimination they were subjected to.

They were allegedly disallowed by caste Hindus to participate in a temple worship on June 6, 2001. Adding insult to injury, the authorities, rather than uphold the constitutional rights of these dalits, turned a deaf ear to their grievances. Provoked thus and for want of alternative avenues of protest, the Arundhardhiars decided to quit the Hindu fold. This event has multiple nuances.

First, this was taking place at a time when the Government of India was trying to convince the rest of the world that caste-based discrimination and intolerance were under control and that there was really no need for the global community to tilt against this windmill. Events like these reinforce the belief of the Dalit leaders that caste is worse than race and that it needs to be recognised for what it really is.

Second, it unmasks the harsh reality of the depravity that is endemic to the practice of religion in this country. In theory, it is only in relation to God that human equality is real, if at all. God is no respecter of the labels of birth and transcends the bases of discrimination that humans invent and impose on their brethren. Yet it is in the name of God that the scandal of discrimination is practised in religions.

Third, this event raises serious questions about the meaning and demeaning of conversion, which is our principal concern here. Conversions are of two kinds. There are individual conversions that result from informed choices in legitimate exercise of the freedom of choice in matters of conscience. Secondly, there are mass conversions. Barring exceptions, mass conversions and mass re-conversions are suspect categories. They rarely result from inner spiritual transformation, which is the only legitimate need for converting. Conversion that falls short of this is spiritually bogus. Such conversions are a greater loss to the religion to which people convert than it is to the religion that they abandon.

In the present instance the desire to convert does not seem to be born out of any spiritual motivation. The decision of the aggrieved dalits to embrace Christianity is not shaped by any worthwhile knowledge of that faith, given the time-frame involved. Unprecedented awareness of one's wretchedness in the given context need not amount automatically to an adequate understanding of the alternative desired. That being the case, conversions of this type involve only one major motif: the psychology, not the spirituality, of protest. While the need to protest is deeply human, and is valid in the religious context as well, it needs to be asked if one religion should lend itself to reinforcing the rhetoric of rebellion against another.

The answer is an emphatic and enthusiastic Yes in the context of the conflictual and competitive model of inter-religious relationships. But this model is now increasingly recognised as irreligious. There is no way that thriving at the expense of others can be deemed spiritually legitimate, except when the idolatry of numerical profit itself is the religion that one practises. The answer, on the other hand, will be an emphatic No as long as there is even a modicum of sensitivity to the spiritual essence of one's own religion.

Rightly understood and practised, this should discourage the desire to thrive at each other's expense in the on-going game of numbers. It is understandable that the dalits, under provocation, wish to mass-migrate to Christianity, or some other faith, in order to "punish' caste Hindus for their callousness. From time immemorial, rejection has been one of the sharpest weapons of punishment. Rejection has two major components: the refusal to accept and the decision to exit. One activates the other. The refusal to accept, which is the logic of caste discrimination, activates the desire in its victims to reject this iniquitous system.

The most definitive and authentic way of rejecting a system is by accepting its alternative; preferably an alternative that is seen to be its polar opposite. This can be kept under wraps, though, by denying freedom of choice to the victims. Hence it is that discrimination and the denial of freedom of choice go hand in hand in the caste mechanism.

Erstwhile hostile nations are today forced by the logic of history to forge alliances of regional cooperation. This is a paradigmatic shift that affects religions also in a similar fashion. Today, in the inter-religious space, we come across affirmations of a shared destiny. Wisdom demands that those who care for the spiritual integrity of their religions and the spiritual well-being of the human species remain vigilant against the recurrence of the old, habitual advocacies and patterns in respect of their own religion. In this light, the option for the Christian community vis-a-vis the developments in Coimbatore is not to encourage or facilitate the proposed mass conversion. It is, instead, to stand by those who are wounded on the jagged edges of caste discrimination.

The spirituality of the Cross disallows the option of fleeing from forces of injustice and discrimination. The Cross is a haunting symbol of ultimate and transforming engagement with reality and the refusal to have recourse to quick-fix solutions. It is precisely because conversions have been encouraged in the past on the principle of "flight" rather than engagement that the spiritual integrity of the community has been seriously eroded by conversions!

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Referred by:Benjamin Paul
Published on: July 23, 2001
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