Conversion, secularism and religious freedom in India

Start - End 
2004 - 2010 (completed)



In contemporary India, religious conversion is one of the most contentious issues in society and politics, which gives rise to heated debate and hostility towards Christians and Muslims. This doctoral research project studied the debates on conversion, secularism, and religious freedom, in order to account for the problems at the heart of this conflict over religious conversion in India.

Today, there are five Indian States with active anti-conversion laws and more are pending. In the media and on the internet, Indians express incomprehension and resentment towards conversion practices. As one participant says: “Indeed this whole notion of conversion seems all wrong to me. What are they converting? Why can’t anyone who wants to practice Christian religion do so without converting?”

Internationally, the response is also one of incomprehension and resentment. In May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the new Indian ambassador to the Holy See, referring to the anti-conversion laws as “the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom.” In response, the Indian Foreign Ministry declared sharply that India is a secular and democratic country guaranteeing equality for all religious faiths. When Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalitha was criticized by the previous Pope for her state’s anti-conversion law, she declared that the Pope has no authority to talk about this, and shot back at a journalist “so what, if he is the chief pontiff?” But the Pope does not stand alone here. In 2009, a special rapporteur of the United Nations pointed out that the anti-conversion laws “raise serious human rights concerns.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom decided in 2009 to put India on its “watch list” of countries requiring close monitoring on religious freedom issues because of its anti-conversion legislations.

 This debate on conversion is not new, but has been going on since the early 19th century. The debate finds itself in a dead-end: the same arguments and concerns are repeated over and again. The only thing the different parties agree upon is that the gap between their viewpoints is unbridgeable. The fact that the issue of conversion has nevertheless remained central for more than two centuries indicates that both parties feel violated and threatened in their most basic cultural values. How can we make the experiences of both parties intelligible?

 In the media and the academic literature, there is a dominant framework explaining the clash over conversion in India. This framework tells us the following: (1) In the modern world, any civilized nation-state should be a secular state that protects the fundamental rights of its citizens, including freedom of religion and conscience and the freedom to choose and change one’s own religion. (2) The opponents of conversion are Hindu nationalists, who challenge secular values and argue for a Hindu state where religious minorities will be second-class citizens. (3) These Hindu nationalists fear that allowing conversion will have Hinduism lose out on other religions like Christianity. This would happen, one claims, because lower castes, Dalits and tribal groups will convert to other religions in order to escape from Hinduism and its caste system. (4) In other words, this framework presents the clash over conversion in India as a struggle between liberal secular values like equality and liberty, on the one hand, and Hindu nationalism and the caste system, on the other.

 However, this framework does not work, since it fails to explain a range of facts in the Indian debate on conversion. Let me mention a few:

- The opposition to conversion is not limited to Hindu nationalists. The feelings of incomprehension and resentment towards conversion are wide-spread across the Indian population, in all kinds of communities and traditions.

- Gandhi, who was certainly not a Hindu nationalist and admired Christianity, also wrote the following: “If I had the power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytizing.”

- Hindu nationalists do not oppose modern values like “secularism,” and “religious freedom.” Instead, they argue that they are the true defenders of secularism and religious freedom.

- This points to another crucial fact: when the different parties in the debate discuss “religion,” “conversion,” “religious freedom,” “secularism,”…, one assumes they are talking about the same things. In reality, however, they give completely different meanings to these terms.

 These problems challenge us to formulate a better hypothesis. We must be able to make sense of the different positions without neglecting both experiences of being violated in crucial aspects of one’s culture. To do so, we can examine the milestones in the conversion debate (point to the slide). These milestone discussions show that when Hindu participants use terms like “religion, “conversion”, “secularism”, “freedom of religion”, etc., they do so in ways that distort the way these terms are normally used in the Western and western-educated world.



Phd Student(s)