Freedom of Religion Bill and Christians
By P.N. BENJAMIN
(Deccan Herald, 27 March 1979)
Freedom of Religion Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 1978, seeks "to forbid conversions from one religion to another by the use of force or inducement or deceit or by any fraudulent means."
This Bill is in no way "against genuine conversions done with free consent and will." It Is meant to curb abuses, especially prevalent in the conversions of Adivasis and Harijans.
The Bill has provoked strong protests among some Christian leaders who are accusing it of being against the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution. Representatives of the Karnataka Christians Combined Action Committee recently called on the Governor and submitted a memorandum protesting against the Bill. They also "urged the Government to extend the privileges given to Scheduled Castes to Christians of Scheduled Caste origin." (D.H. March 21).
The Christian leaders seem to forget that the supreme body of the Catholic Church in Rome, the Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, itself has condemned conversion by force and allurement in the very same terms used by the Bill. Besides, the Freedom of Religion Bill will be equally applicable to all the religious communities, since it forbids forced conversion from one religion to another; so there is no valid reason why Christian leaders alone should agitate against it.
A section of the Christian Church has always wrongly emphasised conversion as the primary aim of the Christian mission, totally misunderstanding Christ's commission. In India some churches were more influenced by this misconceived idea. In the last decade, the issue attracted wide attention within and outside the Church.
At this point, one can ask whether mere conversion will any way help the Church in fulfilling the Christian duty in a society. Many will answer in negative. As long as the economic and social conditions remain unchanged, the Church's mission also will fail.
Christians have sinned more than others .in perpetuating social injustice. Therefore, to speak of the Harijan Christians and ask the Government to uphold fairness and justice is to add insult to injury. It smacks of hypocrisy.
Christians run prestigious schools for the children of the affluent and even accept rich donations for admission to these Institutions. In many of these schools the authorities do not admit the children of Harijan Christians on the pretext that they cannot help their wards in their home work as they do not have "English education.' Through such schools, the class structure Is perpetuated and Christians are very much flattered by the fact that children of ' highly placed Hindu officials and businessmen seek admission in their institutions.
The Christian Church has no dearth of money and organisation. As Mr. Joachim Alva the former M.P., once said, "Christ was the son of a carpenter, with fishermen as his apostles but his Church now is ah empire!." In the last 30 years vast sums of money have come from abroad into the coffers of the Church in India. One would like to know how much of this has been spent on the welfare of Harijan Christians. The Church has done nothing substantially to wipe the" tears out of these unfortunate ones.
On the other hand, this money from abroad has been mainly used to build lavish structures in big cities and on administrative personnel who appropriate the lion's share for themselves and their satellites. Huge hospitals have been built in cities and medical aid there is beyond the means- of the poor and needy. Excepting the ones run by Mother Teresa, almost all other Christian hospitals are unapproachable to the poor.
Caste-consciousness is still prevalent in the Christian community. The caste-complex still persisting among Christians only shows that they are not yet sufficiently redeemed as they profess to be. When the higher ideals and aspirations of the Christian path are understood and when, their mentors, both clergy and the laity, inculcate true Christian spirit among its members, the community can get rid of all negative phases of casteism and transform it as an ideal and casteless society.
When a Harijan becomes Christian he should be given a minimum chance of escaping from the 'outcasts' status. He should merge with the rest of the Christian community and the Church must make it possible for him to start afresh. If Christians cannot treat outcaste converts as part of their fellowship it is better to leave them alone. Christ himself said: "You encompass sea sad land to make one convert and then you make him twice the son of hell as you are."
For many of the Harijan Christians their conversion to Christianity means nothing but substitution of social discrimination within the Churches for discrimination within the Hindu system.
As for democratic and constitutional rights, let the Church first establish true democracy within its own institutions. It is well known that power and money in the Christian organisations are held by cliques who perpetuate their positions through constant manipulation of membership of committees. If any one has the courage to raise a dissenting voice he will find himself out by the end of the year.
All this is not to say that Christians should not raise their voice against injustice and intolerance, but a parochial approach is not the way. They should not try to bargain both ways to be Christians and at the same time grab the advantages available to the Scheduled Classes. They can as well choose to go back to the Hindu faith.
Educational and employment! opportunities and concessions should be made available to the poor and economically underprivileged and should not be based on caste or creed. Th» Government should bring in legislation urgently on an all-India basis towards this end. That would be a revolutionary step indeed which would go a long way towards abolition of caste and social inequality.
Christian leaders must stop "being dazzled by their own words and ensure instead that the distance is closed between what they preach and what they practise. They must take the beams out of their own eyes before pointing out the mote in others' eyes. Like charity, fight against social evils must begin at home. Otherwise, they would be told, "Physician, I heal thyself!." The Christian leaders must present themselves as men of real Christian vision, like Martin Luther King Jr., and charisma, like Mahatma Gandhi, and lead the people against injustice and oppression.
Those who describe the Freedom of Religion Bill as a blow to Christianity forget that the minorities in independent India, especially the Christians, have been enjoying more rights both in law and substance than ever before and they are much better off as citizens of a democratic country than those in the so-called citadels of democracy in the West.
It is a fact that the Catholics in India enjoy more privileges and better rights than their Catholic counterparts in the United States of America and Britain, both allegedly Christian. But the Christian leaders in India who cry wolf against the Bill close their eyes to this fact when they shout "threat to minority rights."
While it is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities, it is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves through artificial means and vested interests.