The Constitution of India and examples from the Bharatiya tradition affirm that propagation of religion must not lead to prostelysation. However, Christian missionaries in their designs and operations have undermined this truth
Filipe Neri Ferrao, Goa & Daman
The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of practicing one’s faith and propagating it, provided it is done without coercion or inducement. The Archbishop of Delhi of the Catholic Church Reverend Anil Couto has spoken about the threat to the democratic principles and the “secular fabric” enshrined in our Constitution and distributed a circular to all the churches in his diocese in May 2018.
The message is that the Christians should be careful in exercising their franchise. He has not named the source of the threat. But the indications are obvious. A very distinguished IPS officer of yester years Julio Ribeiro has also spoken about it and the nation has taken note. I consider Ribeiro a role model of all police officers in India for his exemplary handling of terrorism in Punjab under very trying circumstances. There have been many brave officers in our armed forces, who laid down their lives for securing the country, whose religion happens to be Christianity, and I am prepared to cross swords with anyone who casts doubt on their patriotism. Ribeiro writes that he is prepared to be a second class citizen but he would not accept any slur on his patriotism. These are words of anguish emanating from a brave man who has risked his life for safeguarding our nation. Therefore we must pay attention.
This is all very true. However, the process of conversion is not as sweet and soothing as Ribeiro mistakenly thinks. In the very idea of ‘conversion’, a seed of conflict lies latent. Also there is a difference between conversion and propagation.
Debates and Consensus
On December 6, 1948, the Constituent Assembly discussed the specific issue of conversions by Christian missionaries, while debating amendments to the freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution, which was Article 19 in the Draft Constitution. A distinguished member of the Assembly Lokanath Misra expressed his concern that its inclusion would lead to the “complete annihilation of Hindu culture” due to the “peaceful penetration” of Christianity.
Lokanath Misra went ahead to state in the debate that, “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. I therefore say, let us say nothing about rights relating to religion. Religion will take care of itself. Drop the word “propagate” in Article 19 at least. Civilisation is going headlong to the melting pot. Let us beware and try to survive.”
Another member of the Constituent Assembly, Lakshmi Kant Maitra disagreed with Misra and suggested that, “Propagation does not necessarily mean seeking converts by force of arms, by the sword, or by coercion. But why should obstacles stand in the way if by exposition, illustration and persuasion you could convey your own religious faith to others? I do not see any harm in it. And I do feel that this would be the very essence of our fundamental right, the right to profess and practise any particular religion. Therefore this right should not be taken away, in my opinion.”
An overall consensus which was built in the Constituent Assembly was that propagation does not mean conversion. There were examples like Emperor Ashoka in the Bharatiya context where the monarch propagated his faith, but never forced his subjects to get converted in the same.
It is not only the religious officers appointed by Emperor Ashoka but also the Buddhist monks, who spread Buddhism almost all over Asia, who followed the afore-mentioned principles that propagation must not be done for essentially converting someone into one’s one faith. These are much older Upanishadic principles, which were engraved in stone by Ashoka for all citizens to see. He, of course, added the idea of welfare, especially medical welfare, of humans and animals. Buddhist monks accorded full respect to the Pagan religion of the Greeks, and Confucianism and Taoism of the Chinese.
Missionaries Propagate to Convert
In contrast, a Christian Missionary starts by decrying the ancestral culture and religion of the would-be convert, and this leads to conflict. Conversion means two things, one positive and one negative; first, to accept the message of Jesus Christ as a living principle, and second, to purge all vestige of ancestral culture and religion from one’s life.
The conduct of Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries exemplify the difference between propagation and conversion. In my opinion, the Indian Constitution allows propagation but not conversion. I myself have been the target of conversion by Christian missionaries both in the UK and India. The opening remark usually is “Do you believe in re-birth or re-incarnation?” If the answer is ‘Yes’, pat comes the next question, “Do you not mind being born as a cow or an insect? “ Another one is “Do you think a stone or an idol is God?” Both spring from an extremely shallow knowledge and understanding of Hindu-Buddhist philosophy, because a missionary does not have the time or inclination to study another religion’s principles in depth.
(The writer is Retired Professor, Aerospace Engineering, IIT Kanpur)