Missionary position
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
Email Author
October 11, 2008
First Published: 22:40 IST(11/10/2008)
Last Updated: 01:07 IST(12/10/2008)

Every single Hindu I know has been deeply disturbed and more than a little 
ashamed by the recent violence against Christians. As it is, we are still to 
recover from the grief we felt when Graham Staines and his children were burned 
to death and our subsequent humiliation when the loonies of the Bajrang Dal 
glorified his killer and exulted in the bloodshed. 

At a time when the world is looking at India as a potential 21st century 
superpower, such barbarism is deeply embarrassing. It reminds us that beneath 
our gleaming high-tech, IIT-engineered fa├žade, there lurk medieval forces, full 
of hatred and bloodlust. 

Worse still, it shames all Hindus. Many of us want to say to the world: look, 
this is an aberration; these people are crazy; Hinduism is not like this; it is 
not only one of the world's oldest religions, it is also based on an ancient 
tradition of non-violence, liberalism and tolerance. 

So far, so good. 

But probe deeper and you finally come across the problem. Most Hindus recognise 
that India is a secular country and are happy for it to remain that way. We do 
not dispute that without a tradition of religious freedom and equality, we 
would be no better than Pakistan. 

What we are ambivalent about, however, are conversions. Many Hindus - even 
tolerant ones who consider themselves entirely secular - feel that foreigners 
are abusing India's religious freedoms. Way back in the early 1980s, when poor 
Hindus in the South converted to Islam in a blaze of publicity, alarm bells 
went off all over India. The conversions, we concluded, were prompted by the 
lure of Gulf money. And shortly afterwards, the government of India began to 
look closely at the flow of funds from the Middle East. 

With Christian missionaries, the suspicion dates back even further. In the 
1950s, New Delhi identified the Rev. Michael Scott as the prime instigator of 
the Naga rebellion. We took the line that Christian missionaries had played a 
pernicious role in the North East, using Christianity to drive a wedge between 
the tribes of that region and the Indian mainstream. 

Even today, educated Hindus can be leery about the work of Christian 
missionaries. Why do they need to convert people, we ask. If they are so 
interested in helping the poor, then why don't they do it out of the goodness 
of their hearts? Why is it necessary to also insist that they convert to 

Others ask why it is that missionaries tend to work with the poor, the 
dispossessed and those at the margins of our society. Is it because there are 
the people who need the most help? Or is it because it is much easier to 
convert poor people who will accept any God in return for two square meals a 

Push many Hindus to the wall and they will not dismiss, out of hand, the idea 
that conversions should be banned. Is it really necessary, they will ask, for 
us to sit back and watch helplessly while foreigners use wealth from overseas 
to lure people away from Hinduism? Surely, we can put a stop to this!

Well, yes and no.

I do not have much time for people who run down other people's faiths and then 
try convert them to theirs. And I agree that if you really want to help 
somebody in the name of God, you should be able to do it without simultaneously 
tying to get him to accept your religion. 

But here's the thing: ban conversions and you destroy the idea of India. 

At the root of our notion of who we are as a nation is that we are a secular, 
liberal democracy. This means not only that religion and politics will be kept 
separate but that we will afford complete freedom of belief in both areas. 

Thus, political liberalism means that every Indian has a freedom of choice when 
it comes to his or her beliefs. You can be an extreme Marxist or a dedicated 
Hindutva believer and still function within the Indian political system. What's 
more, you can change your mind at any time. I may have been a Trotskyite in my 
youth but could decide on reflection that Hindu fascism seems much more 
attractive. In our liberal democracy, it is entirely appropriate for me to 
change my mind, even this involves a 180 about turn. 

How can you have freedom of choice if you don't know what the options are? 
Clearly, you can't. And so, not only do we allow books and texts outlining 
various points of view to be freely circulated, we also encourage those with 
different views to freely propagate them. If I am a BJP voter, I cannot 
complain if the Congress candidate tries to get me to change my mind and vote 
for him or even to join his party. That's the whole point of liberal democracy: 
we have the right to change people's minds. 

Now, extend the analogy to religion, the other separate but equally important 
part of our secular liberal democracy. The difference between India and say, 
some repressive Middle Eastern country, is that we extend the same freedoms 
granted in the political sphere to religion. I can be an atheist or a 
fundamentalist Muslim and still be fully Indian. What's more I can change my 
mind. I can suddenly find God if I am an atheist. I can renounce God. Or I can 
choose a another god. Unless I have the right to change my mind, my secular 
freedom is meaningless. 

And how do I know whether to change my mind? In almost exactly the same way as 
I know which party to support. I must have complete access to information and 
yes, people from every religion (and rationalists and atheists even) must have 
the right to lobby me on their own behalf. 

In both politics and religion, take away the right to be lobbied, to be 
persuaded and yes, to be converted, and you destroy the whole notion of 
secular, liberal democracy. 

And on balance, this is good thing. Take Hinduism. All of India was not always 
Hindu. Many Indians worshipped animist faiths before Hinduism came along. At 
some stage, ancient people must have stopped listening to their old priests and 
accepted the virtues of Hinduism. And somebody must have propagated those 
virtues. Similarly, Buddhism swept India for several centuries till Hinduism 
made a comeback and reconverted the Buddhists. Who did the conversions? Hindu 
missionaries, obviously.

Our problem is that all this happened several centuries ago. For over a 
thousand years, Hinduism has not actively converted people. And so, we regard 
conversions as something that only other people do. But if no religion had ever 
converted people all around the world, then all us would still be worshipping 
trees and tigers. 

I'm no great believer in organised religion and perhaps as a consequence, I 
have very little time for evangelists, preachers and missionaries from any 
faith. But despite my disdain for those who seek to convert, I do not find them 

And that eventually, is the question we need to ask ourselves. Yes, the 
missionaries may well be preying on poor people but do they represent any 
threat to India?

If they do, then we can intervene - as we did in Nagaland in the 1950s. But it 
is hard to argue that today's India is threatened by the actions of few 
overzealous Christian missionaries. 

It's harder still to argue that Hinduism, which survived centuries of Buddhist 
influence, Muslim rule and the British empire, faces any significant threat 
from the activities of missionaries in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka. 

Why then is there violence against Christians? 

Well, why did the Nazis massacre the jews? Why do jihadis want to kill 
infidels? Why is there so much racism in the world?

The truth is there will always be people who hate those who are different, 
whether they are Nazis, jihadis or Bajrag Dalis. That is the way of the world. 

The danger is when they pick on some mild disdain that we feel and fool us into 
believing that their motivation is the same as ours. In fact, they are no more 
than murderers and maniacs. 

And it is them we should be acting against, nor tearing up our liberal society 
to ban conversions. 

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