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Freedom Of Religion (Abrogation) Bill 2017

Freedom Of Religion (Abrogation) Bill 2017

On August 2, the Jharkhand government cleared the draft of the “Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill 2017.” As this article is being written it is still a proposed bill, and I refer to it as such. ( The Jharkhand Assembly on 12 August 2017 passed the anti-conversion Bill brought by the BJP-led government amid demand by opposition parties to send the Bill to a select committee, a demand the government turned down. The Religious Freedom Bill-2017 will now be sent to the Governor, following whose approval it would go to the President for assent. )

The Damocles’ sword that hangs over the head of Jharkhand people is  a high-sounding proposal to take away the freedom of choice from every member of the indigenous community, to whom the Hindutvawadis have consistently given the horrible name ‘vanvasis’  as though they are just one of the jungle products.

Buddha had said, ‘think for yourselves, don’t go by confused sacred writings, or self-interested priestly promptings; be a lamp unto yourselves.’  Decide for yourself, make your own choices. This is the freedom that the proposed bill seeks to take away. This is a flagrant violation of Human Rights.

To begin with, the very name of the bill is a misnomer. It says nothing about a citizen’s freedom to make his own decision with regard to religion, to adhere to one or opt for another. But it gives disgustingly interfering injunctions as to which ‘illegitimate authority’ one should report his decisions, how early and in what detail.

Many commentators have been referring to the bill as an ‘anti-conversion bill,’ since it is principally aimed at preventing conversion. But for the Hindutva legal architects, the truth must be hidden from the immediate perception of the international community, and a bitter pill should be given a sugar-coating. Looking at it from this point of view, we cannot but admire the adroit skill of their think-tanks for camouflaging their real intentions and introducing an obnoxious bill with a highly respectable title ‘Freedom of Religion.’

While recognizing their inimitable creativity, I would make a humble suggestion: just add the simple word “(Abrogation)” to the impressive title. Thus, it will read,  “Jharkhand Freedom of Religion (Abrogation) Bill 2017.”  In this way, the meaning becomes clear. And all the world will know what the cute Indians are busy with, and constitutional lawyers will see what articles they are violating. I am taking inspiration for the title from the phrasing of TADA, “Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.”

I referred to ‘illegitimate authority,’ because we are not aware of any democratic nation that gives secular authorities the right to interfere in personal decisions in religious matters.

The trouble with the bill is that it does not understand the meaning of conversion. ‘Conversion’ is not the rite that a religious leader performs, it is a personal decision that an individual makes in the intimacy of his heart. Even the mightiest potentate on earth has no right to interfere in this matter. Our legal experts have not studied the issue from this point of view.

The religious rite remains an empty shell, if a personal decision has not been made. The religious belief is that the rite cannot be refused to a genuine seeker. Performance of the ritual is part of worship, freedom for which is honoured in every nation that claims to be democratic.

We always respect a person’s right to choose his career. No one has the right to dictate to him what his choice should be. His family and friends may advise and suggest; but the final decision is his.

In the same way, a person has the right to choose his life-partner. This is even a more ‘personal’ matter. No right-minded man will question this right. 

Nor will a fair-minded person ever question the right of an individual to make his/her own decision in the religious field. It is a matter far more ‘personal’ to him... far more ‘intimate’ to his inner being. These are sacred grounds on which no one else may tread. Bhagavadgita 4.38  says, “In this world, there is nothing so sublime and pure as transcendental knowledge. Such knowledge is the mature fruit of all mysticism.” Here the doors remain closed to Collectors, Commissioners and coarse men.

Gita 4.34 gently suggests, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual man.” If these two verses are respected, the entire cacophonous chorus about ‘conversion’ will come to an end. Even Yogi Adityanath, who does not believe in Mother Teresa and Taj Mahal, believes at least in the Gita.

The psychologist Victor Frankl in the Nazi camp subjected to torture and brainwashing, discovered that in one area alone he is master: he is the master of his mind. This is the area where BJP-Hindutva-KGB-(state police) wants to interfere as Congress-Hindutva had done in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat earlier. In Shillong, Amit Shah proudly boasted that all the Freedom of Religion Acts in India were passed by the Congress Party. He was right. We are not opposing any party; we are opposing fanaticism, religious bias, cultural exclusivism, upper class arrogance, majoritarianism.

If changing one’s mind is wrong, Nitish Kumar should immediately be held accountable.  His ‘conversion’ is going to have enormous social consequences, not like that of a humble villager who makes his religious choice in the quiet intimacy of his heart. A large number of people who have been dragged into the Ruling Party from other political loyalties with the use of “force, fraud or inducement’ should be held accountable,... and those too who made this happen. Shall we place them side by side with those MPS and MLAs who are already with serious criminal cases against them?

But the interesting fact is that from the earliest times, “The Argumentative Indian” (Amartya Sen)  has always been busy with changing other people’s minds, converting. What were Yajnavalkya and Gargi busy with?  Right in the middle of Kurukshetra war, we find Krishna seeking to change the mind of Arjuna,..and he succeeded. Did he report to the civil authorities the ‘conversion’ he had taken? Asoka was the greatest convert-maker in human history. Did he provide the District Collector of Pataliputra with information any more than Nitish has done recently?

But I will tell you what was the greatest convert-making force in Indian history? The arrogance and exclusivism of the dominant classes. People unwanted in Hindu society (lower castes, unwanted tribes) opted out. It is fairly well established that the lower classes in Kashmir and the poor tenants in East Bengal cast in their lots with Islam to get away from the prolonged ill-treatment they had received from the upper classes.

Historians observe that India lost wars to nearly all invaders, because the lower rank of our fighting men were not given a sense of belonging. Ill-paid and under-nourished, they were fighting somebody else’s battle, not for their motherland. Shrieking Bharata Mata ki Jai will not make a person a patriot, but giving him/her the feeling that he/she is a legitimate son/daughter of this nation side by side with its greatest.

But unfortunately this is not the philosophy that runs in the veins of today’s Hindutvawadis. For them, the minorities have to show loyalty in the way they dictate, the dalits have to serve as foot soldiers in their violent campaigns  to break down babri mazjids, lynch beef-eaters, and harass convert-makers...also to face bullets, lathi-charges and court cases.

Already one third parts of the population are made to feel they do not belong. Vice President Hamid Ansari spoke of a sense of insecurity in the Muslim community as he was moving out. Thus we stand divided as we are taking on powerful neighbours. And Modiji remains unconcerned.

Our culture itself is fast changing: one of exclusion, apartness, superior-inferior, belonging-nonbelonging, ruling classes-subject people. As religious ghettos are growing in urban centres, communal zones are developing in rural areas.  If another East India Company were to appear in the East, Babur in the West, or Genghis Khan in the North, they shall see deeper into our weaknesses than we do in our self-chosen blindness.

It is not that these things are unknown to the privileged lot who are at the helm of affairs. Those who want their children in the Harvard University and Silicon Valley, who want them to feel at home with beef-eaters and convert-makers round the world, they know what is right and respectable and universally accepted. But they would long to keep these doors shut to the masses by keeping them in the palaeolithic age bowing to bovine progeny and wielding a trident like Neptune. That is the meaning of Ghar Vapsi: re-subjection.

This was the instinct that constructed the caste-system centuries ago and gave it a divine sanction. It has gone too deep into the DNA of the ruling classes...and of late, a saffron doze has given it fresh energy.  We are not seeing easy healing too soon. It can only be defeated by the consequences of its own aberrations.

It is in this context that a great ‘conversion’ is required for all of us. One of our ancestors prayed thus, “O Lord, may we share among ourselves the gifts granted by Thee and lead a peaceful life” (Rig Veda 2,13,4). Once we have this attitude of sharing all that we have: spirituality, wisdom, insight, technical skills, economic resources, esteem, love and human affection, the nation will grow relaxed, and collectively we shall find ways of building our future together. May this prayer come true.

(Published on 21st August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 34)