Fr. Paul Mike S. J.
The thirst for freedom in one’s both private and public life is innate in every individual. Without freedom, one cannot live one’s life fully. ‘Freedom’ can be defined as “the condition or right of being able to do, say, think, whatever one wants to, without being controlled or limited”. Further, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” In short, the term ‘freedom’ has got deeper meaning in one’s life. Positively, one’s life is shaped and fashioned by the degree of freedom one cherishes here on earth. On the contrary, when the powers around them try to control the basic elements of freedom breathed by individuals, their life gets suffocated. However, a line needs to be drawn between one’s freedom and the collective freedom of society. One shouldn’t overlap with the other. In other words, one’s freedom should in no way hinder the normal life of the general public and vice versa.
Freedom of faith:
In light of the above understanding, an attempt has been made to critically analyze the prevalent notion/mindset of people and rulers of our country about ‘freedom of faith’ — a fundamental right enshrined in our constitution. The following table will indicate the prevalent population in 1951 during the time of the first census taken in Independent India and the sixth census taken in 2021.
As per the statistics, since 1951 there is a 4.3% decrease in the population of Hindus and a 4.43% increase in the population of Muslims. It has also to be noted that there is a slight decrease in the percentages of Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains too.
When this is the data available to us, there is a huge cry made in the country made by the present rulers, media, and fundamentalists that Christians and Muslims are trying to convert the entire country and take away all Hindus to their religions. They go to the extent of attributing motives to all the good deeds done by the minorities to uplift the marginalized people such as Dalits and Tribals. Even RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made a statement that “the prime motive behind Mother Theresa’s service to the destitute was converting them to Christianity.”
Trailing the matter, the rulers in different states over the period have come out with legislations throttling conversions from one religion to another, for example, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, etc. It is interesting to note that practically all the states titled the anti-conversion laws enacted in their respective assemblies as ‘The Freedom of Religion Act’ giving the impression that they were enacted to safeguard the right of individuals to choose and practice the religion of their choice. However, any ordinary citizen would know that they were enacted to do just the contrary.
Secondly, though the articulated intention of these laws was to prevent ‘forcible’ conversion, the hidden agenda is to criminalize all types of conversions including ‘voluntary’ ones. This is obvious from the fact that these laws fail to recognize and respect in toto the conversions that are ‘voluntary’.
Thirdly, these legislations create so much fear psychosis among minorities that one is afraid even to share with people of other religions what one cherishes / experiences in his or her faith. The general public too on its part tends to look at religious minorities always with suspicion and attribute motives for all they say and do. Isn’t it polarization of thoughts leading to the throttling of freedom and suffocation of one’s life?
Implications of this legislation:
As we know, following a particular faith is left to the choice of an individual as it comes under the realm of conscience. State interference in one’s realm of conscience is nothing but an intrusion into one’s privacy and freedom. Of course, the state has every right to control conversions that are done through ‘force’ or ‘allurement’. But the state has to make efforts to define what it means by ‘force’ and ‘allurement’. In my opinion, this has not been adequately done by the state, which results in individuals/hate-mongers attributing motives for all the good deeds of minorities as they like. Here two things happen. One, an attempt is made to curtail the freedom of minorities to practice their faith according to their conscience, and two, the good deeds of minorities — which in general, emanate out of their faith in the God whom they worship, are projected in poor light, paving way for the hate-monger to carry forward a hate-campaign, maligning their names.
What is wrong with converting a person through love? Say, a poor man provided with food, shelter, and healthcare decides to embrace the religion of the helper, how can one call it a ‘force’ or ‘allurement’? When the poor man had been starving for several days, no one bothered to be of any help to him. But when somebody helps the person which leads him to a change of heart and eventually to a change of religion, then everybody jumps in and accuses the helper of ‘alluring’ the poor. Every time, the helper/Samaritan is criminalized and the onlookers are portrayed/seen as ‘patriots’.
As we all know, it is mostly the poorer section of the people who look for a way to improve their livelihood or sometimes even their survival. When they choose to change their religion in search of economic security or to get away from the curse of caste oppression, what right one has to find fault with them? Isn’t it their right to look for greener pastures in their life? After all, when the ruling rich elites pay crores of rupees to change their political affiliations, which is a blatant violation of democratic principles, nobody is bothered. But when a poor man decides to change his status — religious or economic, a huge cry is made. Well, the elite wants them to stay where they are, in servitude of course, so that the privileged class can maintain their superiority.
By law one cannot stop the upward movement in Indian society. People look for a way to go up the ladder perhaps in the form of religion and if that does not give what they look for, they move on. Sometime back in Tamilnadu several followers of Periyar turned to Mahabodhi society started by a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. Periyar Dasan became Siddhartha or Gautam Sanna. When that did not satisfy them, they joined other political wings to find security. So the social mobility will go on. To hit at the Muslims and Christians is only self-defeating strategy.
Finally, freedom of religion is a fundamental right. The responsibility of safeguarding the rights of individuals lies with the State. The earnest hope is that the State doesn’t become complicit with the hate-baiters. “Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake!”
(Paul Michael Raj, S.J. is at present the Executive Director of PEAK — People’s Education and Action in Kodaikanal since June 2022. He has 12 years of experience in Youth work being part of two organizations i.e., AICUF-All India Catholic University Federation and JYMSA — Jesuit Youth Ministry in South Asia, and 20 years of field-based work experience in different action groups in different parts of Tamil Nadu. He was the founder of KALANGARAI, a Jesuit social organization in Nagapattinam, and an initiator of a movement cum federation for widows both in Nagapattinam and Tamil Nadu. He is the author of two books i.e., ‘Thandavam’ — on the root cause of fundamentalism in Indian soil and ‘Racial Hegemony — on the Genocide in Gujarat in 2002.)