By TV Mohandas Pai
The Rajya Sabha has been paralysed by the Opposition on the “Ghar Vapasi” programe of a few organisations from the right. However, if you follow the debate, it is clear that this is a political battle by the left and the left of centre parties to embarrass and discredit the right of centre party in power. Maybe even with the intent to show up the government as incapable of bringing in reforms and development. The so-called conversion debate was an excuse to paralyse the Rajya Sabha, and a great opportunity was missed to debate the issue of large-scale surreptitious conversions across India (which is the real problem).
There is no doubt that large scale conversions have been taking place across India, accelerating over the last 5 years led by evangelical groups from the West. The North East has been converted with Arunachal and Tripura being now targeted. Tribal belts across Odisha, Jharkhand, Gujarat and MP have seen large-scale conversions for several years now.
The new phenomenon over the last 5 years has been the huge increase in evangelical conversions in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, clearly visible via the vehement advertising on particular channels on TV. Andhra Pradesh, particularly the interiors, Hyderabad and the coastal regions, has been specifically targeted due to the red carpet laid by a now deceased Chief Minister whose son-in-law is a Pastor with his own outfit. The visible impact across this region to any observer shows clearly that a huge amount of money has come in and that there is targeted conversion going on. Some evangelical groups have claimed that 9-12% of undivided AP has been converted, and have sought special benefits from the State (which has been reported in the media).
There is a very sophisticated operation in place by the evangelical groups, with a clear target for souls, marketing campaigns, mass prayer and fraudulent healing meetings. Evidence is available in plenty on videos on YouTube, social media, press reports, and on the ground. Pastors have been openly tweeting about souls converted, and saving people from idol worshippers. Some pastors have tweeted with glee about converts reaching 60 million, declaring a target of 100 million, and have also requested for financial support for this openly. Violence in some areas due to this has vitiated the atmosphere. The traditional institutions of both denominations are losing out to the new age evangelicals with their sophisticated marketing, money and legion of supporters from the West. One can almost classify these groups as hyper-growth startups – with a cost per acquisition, a roadmap for acquiring followers, a fund-raising machine, and a gamified approach (with rewards and incentives) to “conquering” new markets.
Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the right of the individual to choose her religion. This is not in question, and is a very important concept for a nation like ours. But this right is terribly constrained by religions, which severely punish apostasy. Our laws prohibit conversion due to inducement, allurement, undue influence, coercion, or use of supernatural threats. Every debate on TV misses this point -people argue on grounds of constitutional rights and abuse right wings groups who protest such conversion forgetting that these new age evangelicals are clearly breaking the law! They go to the desperate, and prey on their insecurities by offering education for their children, medical services for the sick, and abuse existing religious practices and traditions.
People also point to the approximate 2.3% share of this minority in the last 3 censuses to deny such conversions. Of course, the 2011 census figures on religion has strangely not been released and we need this data. However, the reason why inthe conversion numbers do not show up in the census is that conversions are happening in communities entitled to reservation benefits. It appears that they are clearly told not to reveal their conversion in the census or officially to prevent loss of benefits. Most conversions happen amongst the tribals and rural and urban poor, who are soft targets to inducements.
I have a personal experience of evangelical groups trying to convert members of my family. Two house maids who converted said that the school where their children went raised fees and due to their inability to pay, they were told they would waive it if they converted (which they were forced to do). Of course, the school was rabid in their evangelism with these children. I use a taxi company for travel over the last ten years. I have noticed over 30% of drivers have converted over the last 5 years.
When asked, inevitably they spoke about evangelicals groups that gave them free education for children and paid their medical bills, provided they converted.
It is obvious that large-scale conversion by illegal means is happening in many places and the impact is clearly visible to anybody who would choose to see openly. Some apologists ask – where are the complaints about inducement or coercion? The law needs enforcement by the police independent of complaints, as is happening when rightist groups proudly announce conversions. These rightist groups lack sophistication, but they have squarely focused attention on this large-scale conversion activity. Law enforcers need to act before this becomes a bigger flashpoint.