Changing Faith: Why Are Political Conversions Legal But Religious Ones Suspect?

Those who make objections to such private choices should come clean and acknowledge that their pleas are political rather than religious, or that religion is suffused with politics – however we deny that premise.

Last week, a well-known lawyer went to the Supreme Court with the plea that curbs be placed on “black magic, superstitions, and religious conversions through threats, intimidation, deception”.

Justice R.F. Nariman, heading a three-judge bench, “expressed strong displeasure” at the plea. He pointed out that the word “propagate” was written into Article 25 with a purpose, and that any citizen above the age of 18 had a right to choose any religion.

Interestingly, the plaintiff cited a 1977 judgement of a constitution bench which – in the case of Rev. Stanislau vs the State of Madhya Pradesh – had held that the right to propagate did not equal the right to convert.

So much for the consistency of judicial pronouncements.

But there is something that the honourable justices might have considered as a relevant corollary to the plea that was placed before them: Why is it alright for a member of one political party to be converted to join another and reap benefits thereof? Is it not the case, surely, that nine times out of ten, such conversions are the result of lucrative quid pro quos?

Especially when, in doing so, it will be agreed, that elected politicians who ‘convert’ betray the public trust for having sought votes on one platform and then shifting to an adversarial one. The anti-defection law may require them to resign and contest again, yet we have never heard of a legal demand that such conversions be curbed. Or that they require the local district magistrate to first satisfy herself that these ‘conversions’ are not the product of allurement or threat.

Contrarily, in the matter of conversion to another faith, no public trust is ever involved as it is a matter exclusively of personal choice – however problematic the circumstances in which such a choice is made by an adult who already has the right to choose her political representatives to elected bodies. A fine irony attends this conjunction. Adults who choose their political representatives are then being told by those they have chosen what else they may choose or not choose pertaining to their private lives.

Also read: ‘I Converted to Islam, But Hide My New Faith in Public’: An Upper Caste Hindu Man Tells His Story

If the political choice exercised by an adult citizen, however annoying to political adversaries, is kosher, why is a religious choice, which is entirely private, not?

Does this not suggest that the objection to religious conversions is less a matter of religion, and more of politics?

Justice Nariman asks the all-important question: What is the point in propagating one’s faith if such propagation is never to influence another person’s view of what is better suited to her personal and ethical concerns and intellectual satisfaction?

Can it be argued that a teacher teaching a class must never expect any of her students to be persuaded of the case the teacher may be making, but to remain ensconced in the values and perceptions the student has inherited? Were that to be so, what use is exposure to education involving years of tough cogitation over competing ideas?

Consider how top executives of corporations switch from one business house to another. They then begin to propagate the virtues of products and practices that they may have derided till the point of such conversion. How is it that such conversions are looked upon as smart career practices, with no issues of ethics or law ever raised?

I ask myself, did the six lakh or so Indians who converted to Buddhism along with Baba Sahib Ambedkar do so under coercion or in answer to an acute propagation of the rights and wrongs of faiths and of their social practices? And if so, can it be held that critical exegeses of religious texts offered throughout human history by knowledgeable scholars ought to remain inert and futile acts, never to be allowed to impinge on the religious choices made by adult human beings?

Many enlightened souls have rightly instructed that while god made us, we made religion. And if we made so many, how may one person or another be held culpable for making choices which may be dictated severally, either by grave theological cogitations or by the differing patterns of accommodation available in competing religions?

After all, faith that is held without application of mind constitutes “blind faith” – something that may be consistent with closed intellectual and political systems but clearly does not sit well with the culture of democratic thought and practice. Democracies do not fight religious crusades as of old. And if they do, they cease to be democracies.

At the least, those who make objections to such private choices should come clean and acknowledge that their pleas are political rather than religious, or that religion is suffused with politics – however we deny that premise.

It will be interesting to see how the top court resolves the contradiction between the earlier averment by the constitution bench and the judgement that has now come from a three-judge bench.

The world has been witness to the history of “conscientious objectors” to one thing or another – be it war, the killing of animals, or stipulations within religions. Indeed, history is replete with instances of individuals having rejected one particular sect within the same religion for another that mortally challenges doctrines unpalatable to the objector. For example, the followers of Kabir are not the same kind of Hindus as Sanatan Dharmis; nor are Sufis the same kind of Muslims as the Wahabis.

Why then is it hard to understand that adults have both the right and the percipience to make choices that suit their sense of selfhood and spiritual growth more than some other systems of belief?

And why do conversions that involve public trust continue to be seen as less heinous than conversions that should be nobody’s business but one’s own?

Most religions encourage enquiry. Take Islam and Hinduism; the first enjoins the pursuit of iqra (education) upon its followers, emphasising that even if this means you must travel far and wide to China, you must not shirk the effort; the second holds jigyasa (curiosity, awareness, questioning) as a high watermark of  religious quest.

Yet, if strenuous iqra and jigyasa lead a seeker to a point of reflection where the tenets of the religion itself come into question, what is one to do? Should both then be curbed? Is it not strange logic that a quester is directed to exercise free and wide enquiry but only so long as the enquirer returns to follow the doctrines set out in whichever religion she may be born into?

Or, is it not equally strange that the self-appointed guardians of one religion should be elated when a subject converts to their faith, but deny her right to do the opposite?

Religions are inherited, not chosen. Does it not seem grossly unacceptable that as a child grows, she may be allowed to choose what subjects she may study, what career she may follow, what food she may eat, what clothes she may wear, what music she may prefer etc., but will be questioned and subject to official ratification if she reviews the one thing in whose making she had no say, being simply born Hindu, Muslim, Christian or any other unbeknownin the womb itself?

Why is it that we may be free to question many determinants of our inheritance but never our given religious identity, even if our best mind or our social experience cries out for change?

Not to speak of our anxiety about the hereafter.

When Valmiki’s conversion was okay, why should a latter-day Paul need official ratification in states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and others, which have made laws to regulate religious conversions?