Saturday, October 26, 2002

Behind Jayalalithaa's Ordinance

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR

The anti-conversion Ordinance is suggestive of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's strategy of moving closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party at a critical point in her political career.

"If you want to gain self-respect... equality... independence... change your religion... Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus, we are treated thus (like untouchables). If we were members of another faith, none would dare treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die an Hindu, for this is in my power... ''
- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, October 13, 1935.


IT is this "power'' to convert to another religion just to be free from humiliation and oppression, that the recent Tamil Nadu law, the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2002, seeks to take away. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has announced its determination to bring a Bill to get legislative sanction for the measure.

Promulgated just three weeks before the start of the Assembly session, with no immediate provocation or theoretical basis, this new law, which prima facie contravenes the fundamental right of all citizens "to freely profess, practise and propagate religion,'' as ensured by Article 25(1) of the Constitution, has attracted criticism all-round. The objection is that it is regressive, draconian and biased against the minorities, the socially oppressed and the economically disadvantaged who are among the main converts.

According to Section 3 of the Ordinance: "No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.'' Contravention can attract a jail term up to three years and a fine of Rs. 50,000. If the convert is "a minor, a woman or a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe,'' the jail term can be for five years and the fine Rs.1 lakh.

On the face of it, the stated objective of the Ordinance - to put an end to force, allurement or fraud in conversion - appears unexceptionable. But it does raise serious issues of what constitutes allurement, and who is to determine whether fraudulent means have been used. Given the ambiguity in the definition of the terms "allurement'', "force'' and "fraudulent means'', the apprehensions of minority religious bodies, mainly from the Christian community, about the new law seeking to put an end to genuine work among the sick, the poor and the illiterate - in which Christian missionaries have a long and enviable record in the country and in the State - are real. While Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is at pains to emphasise that it is "not directed against any particular religion,'' it does appear to have a bias against the Christian and Muslim communities.

Important in this context is Section 5 (1) of the Ordinance. It requires that anyone who converts by "himself'' or takes part in the conversion ceremony "as a religious priest'' or who "takes part directly or indirectly in such a ceremony'' has to intimate the local magistrate within a specified period. Failure to do so can attract a jail term of one year and a fine of Rs.1,000. This, according to the critics of the Ordinance, opens the door to intimidation, harassment and even persecution, particularly when the converts are from the socially and economically depressed sections, as is often the case.

In banning the so-called "forcible'' religious conversions, the Jayalalithaa Government is taking the sectarian route of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In some sense, it is seeking to outdo the BJP-ruled States that have not enacted a similar law that is anti-minority and anti-Dalit. Even Gujarat, for long a hotbed of communal tension, has not thought up such a draconian piece of legislation.

According to the critics of the Tamil Nadu law, neither "religious conversions'' nor "threats of conversion'' are new for the State. Also there has been no immediate provocation.

The Ordinance is widely seen as part of a series of initiatives that Jayalalithaa has taken, from 1991, to move closer to the BJP, which was virtually a non-entity in the State till then. The BJP, which put up a dismal show in the 1991 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the State - polling less than 2 per cent of the total votes, winning only 10 Assembly seats and losing its deposit in the rest of the 90 Assembly and 10 Lok Sabha seats it contested - has made inroads in the State. It has done this sitting on the shoulders of the Dravidian parties which, in their quest for political gain, appear not averse to abandoning the plank of secularism and rationalism to join hands with Hindutva forces. Also, changes in the dynamics of caste in the State have provided space for the BJP's entry.

According to the critics of the Tamil Nadu law, Jayalalithaa may be trying to get closer to the BJP for political and personal reasons. Jayalalithaa is perceived to have a sympathy for Hindutva. Swings in the country's political mood also influence her on-again, off-again relationship with the BJP.

IN June 1991, one of Jayalalithaa's first decisions soon after becoming Chief Minister was to launch a temple renovation scheme. She initiated a move to start Vedic colleges to train young men to become temple priests. She brought forward an ordinance that allowed the government to interfere with minority-run educational institutions, but withdrew it under pressure. Then, in November 23, 1992, at the National Integration Council meeting in New Delhi, she came out in support of allowing kar seva in Ayodhya. She was one of the first Chief Ministers to come out strongly against the dismissal of the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. She allowed the Hindu Munnani - essentially a South-based outfit with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh leanings - to hold its State convention in Coimbatore, even though the RSS was officially banned. No wonder that at a meeting organised by the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas Manch - a body formed on January 25, 1993 and consisting mainly of sadhus to canvass support for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya - in Chennai on March 21, 1993, Hindu Munnani chief Rama Gopalan thanked Jayalalithaa for "being with us like god''. She allowed AIADMK cadres to collect 20 lakh signatures in support of the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, and the BJP to hold in Chennai a "national awakening'' meeting in which L.K. Advani participated.

And, now, during her second stint as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, apart from providing money for temple renovation and pension for temple priests, started an `Annadanam' scheme to feed poor Hindus in temples and spiritual classes in over 150 Hindu temples. She also arranged a grand marriage ceremony for a number of Hindu couples. Significantly, she refused to condemn Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the communal riots post-Godhra and even spoke in favour of the Hindu population.

It is well known that an anti-conversion law has been high on the agenda of the RSS. Only last month RSS Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan wrote on the need for an anti-conversion legislation in Panchajanya, the organisation's mouthpiece. Last year, the Tamil Nadu unit of the Hindu Munnani passed a resolution at its annual conference demanding such a law.

Politically, the Ordinance is suggestive of an AIADMK strategy of moving closer to the BJP leadership. Jayalalithaa's out-of-the-blue attack on Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's "Italian origins'' must be seen in this context. The critics also suggest a larger game plan of not letting the Dalits and minorities come together to become a potent force at election time. This is also a critical political time for Jayalalithaa since the Supreme Court's judgment in the TANSI cases are awaited (see following story).

The State government has a pious explanation for the Ordinance. It is supposed to act "as a deterrent against anti-social elements exploiting the innocent people in the depressed classes'' and to "stop communal tensions under the garb of conversions''. If conversions are seen as dramatically changing the composition of the population, thereby causing great social tension and upheaval, a demographic study would be required. Further, economic conditions would need to be researched to understand why conversions happen and who the converts are. A large proportion of Hindus who embrace Christianity or Islam belong to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe. What information exists suggests that conversions happen for social, rather than economic, reasons. But the State government does not seem to have attempted any objective study before promulgating the drastic Ordinance.

For, if the "allurement'' theory is true, there would have been large-scale conversions, particularly to Christianity on account of its excellent record of missionary service. This would be reflected in the percentage of Christians in Tamil Nadu's population. The simple fact is that this percentage has remained steadily around 5 per cent from the time of Independence (5.23 per cent in 1961 and 5.78 per cent in 1991). This is true also of the Muslim population, which has also been around 5 per cent of the State's population since Independence (4.63 per cent in 1961 and 5.21 per cent in 1991).

Another myth the Sangh Parivar tries to promote demagogically is that Muslims are poised to overtake Hindus in the population. According to Census figures, while India's Muslim population rose from 4.2 crores in 1941 to 7.6 crores in 1981 - an increase of 81 per cent - the Hindu population went up from 23.8 crores to 55 crores, a jump of 131 per cent. It will take 390 years for Muslims to become a majority, assuming the same annual compound growth rate of 2.71 per cent that prevailed between 1971 and 1981.

The ridiculousness of the Sangh Parivar claim becomes evident from the fact that if the same growth rate continues for 390 years (from 1981) there will be 5,000 billion Indians or roughly 5,000 times the population today. This is absurd. According to demographers, when the population reaches its stationary limit (every population group is bound to reach this limit with development), some time in the near future, the Muslim population is likely to be no more than 13 per cent of the total (India: Population, Economy, Society by R.H. Cassen).

Also, if the compound annual growth rate of Muslim population (2.71 per cent) is higher than the Hindu growth rate (2.19), it is primarily because of the higher fertility rates among Muslim women. These reflect poor socio-economic conditions, including a lack of education, a lack of access to health care services, low income and so on, as revealed by the recent NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) Reports 438 and 468. In terms of income, 40 per cent of the Muslim population (double that of the Hindu population) belong to the bottom 20 per cent in towns and cities. If the "allurement'' theory were true, Hindus would certainly not be tempted to embrace Islam, a community whose socio-economic indicators are hardly alluring.

To demolish the "allurement'' theory further, we can look at the well-known1981 mass conversion episode in Kanyakumari district's Meenakshipuram village where nearly 200 Dalit families embraced Islam. All of them cited social reasons: harassment, ill-treatment and humiliation they had to face from `caste Hindus'. Socially oppressed and humiliated, the Dalits led a dismal life, worse than "animals''. Interestingly, of the three most socially oppressed castes in Tamil Nadu, the poorest, the Chakkiliyans, did not convert. However, Pallars, the best placed among them economically and in terms of education, did so.

The fact that people belonging to the Scheduled Castes were barred from entering temples (this unconstitutional social ban operates even today in many places), were discriminated against in eateries by the two-tumbler system, were not allowed to wear shirts and footwear, were denied access to common wells, and even streets where caste Hindus lived, were humiliated at work places and had their women exploited, led them to convert to Islam.

The hope was that conversion to a religion that did not preach or practise untouchability would change their social status. That a change in status happened is borne out by subsequent studies (Frontline, December 1, 1995; and Religion in South India:Religious Conversion and Revival Movements in South Asia in Medieval and Modern Times edited by G.A. Oddie; Manohar, New Delhi, 1991) two decades ago in Meenakshipuram now live with self-respect and are addressed as "bhai'' or "attha'' and have also risen to respectable positions in the local Jumma (mosque). Enthused by the improvement in the social status of those converted, 50 more Dalit families embraced Islam at Meenakshipuram subsequently.

Dalits continue to face the same kind of humiliation and oppression in Tamil Nadu even today. Recent shocking incidents in Tiruchi district's Thinniyam village where two Dalits were forced to eat human faeces by Thevars, and in Dindigul, where a Dalit was forced by Gounders to drink urine, are but the tip of the iceberg. Dalit Murasu editor Punitha Pandiyan comments: "These incidents are real issues that `force' the Dalits away from the Hindu fold.'' Peace activist Valson Thampu observes that "if at all `force' plays a role in the conversions of the S.Cs, S.Ts and Dalits , it is not by those who `propagate' their faiths but by the oppressive caste system and the humiliation they face from caste Hindus.'' According to him, the social oppression has to be dealt with if conversions are to be stopped.

Most often, Dalits have used the `conversion' threat as a last resort to draw the attention of the administration to the unfair treatment meted out to them by caste Hindus. The conversion threat was famously used by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1935 to draw attention to the plight of the S.Cs and S.Ts. He eventually led nearly a million Dalits into another faith, Buddhism, in 1956. It is this powerful moral weapon that the new law tries to take away from Dalits and the poor. For example, in Koothirambakkam village of Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram district, Dalits have successfully used from 1979 the "conversion'' threat to get their rightful dues - a cement road, an overhead water tank, access to the temple road and a common well, and a ration shop - from the district administration. The 58 families living in the Dalit colony of the village ask with anger and disappointment: "Even as the government is unable to ensure that we are not treated like inferior animals, it is coming up with an anti-conversion law. We are all going to embrace Islam. Let the government arrest all of us.''

Tamil Nadu's move needs also to be seen in the larger political context of the bogey of "forcible conversions'' being raised time and again by the Hindutva forces when it suits their agenda. This became clear in 1998 when churches and missionaries came under attack in Gujarat and some other parts of the country. Instead of acting to put an end to this targeted anti-minority violence, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called for a "national debate'' on conversion by missionaries.

It was at the Mumbai Conference of Hindu religious leaders in 1964 that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was formed as the militant arm of the Hindu Right. Its primary task, to "consolidate and strengthen the Hindu society'', was to be achieved by taking on systematically Muslim clergy and Christian missionaries "who had launched intensive activity to convert Hindus, especially the S.C. and S.T., in various parts of the country''. The conference identified Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Gujarat as areas of heightened Muslim activity. Christian missionaries, the conference observed, were dangerously active in the northeastern region, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat.

The VHP systematically resorted to propagating myths against the minority communities (Frontline, October 12, 1991). In 1981, the VHP journal, Hindu Viswa, stated that "in Bharath, religious conversions pose a grave threat to national security and integrity'' and "reconversion'' of Muslims and Christians was identified as the major aim of the VHP. Interestingly, several studies, including media reports, show that while there was no communal tension "prior to, during and after conversion'', there appears to be some tension during the "forced'' reconversion activity. In fact, in most cases, the "allurement'' of economic benefits, including reservation and benefits guaranteed under the Constitution to the socially-depressed castes, is used for "reconversion''. The Tamil Nadu Ordinance seems to fit perfectly into the Sangh Parivar's game plan.

One other justification is offered for the Tamil Nadu Ordinance. It is that a comparable law has been in place in Orissa (since 1967), Madhya Pradesh (since 1968) and Arunachal Pradesh (since 1977), and that they have survived challenges in the Supreme Court (notably Stanislaus vs the State of Madhya Pradesh, 1977) for violating Article 25 of the Constitution that ensures the freedom to propagate religion.

Jayalalithaa has clearly won the admiration of the Sangh Parivar. VHP leader Ashok Singhal has hailed the Ordinance as "a bold step and an eye-opener for the other States''. Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati is enthused and wants a similar law for the whole country.

Virtually the entire Opposition, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Congress and the two Communist parties have joined forces against the Ordinance. Christian, Muslim and Dalit organisations and human rights and social activists have condemned it. A joint struggle committee with the widest representation is actively mobilising support to get the Jayalalithaa government to withdraw the obnoxious new law.

While DMK president M. Karunanidhi has come out strongly against the Ordinance as going against the principles of C.N. Annadurai and Periyar, the pillars of the Dravidian movement in the State, Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary N. Varadarajan pointed out that if Jayalalithaa seriously wanted to do something, she should address the root cause of the problem, that is, social ostracism and humiliation of the Dalits by caste Hindus. His view is that the Ordinance can easily be misused against minorities and Dalits.

Demanding the withdrawal of the Ordinance, the joint struggle committee has chalked out a programme of mass protest including fasts and marches throughout Tamil Nadu.

Source: Frontline, October 26, 2002

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