Christian missionary’s killing on Andaman Island rekindles debate on conversion

A tribesperson, foreground, participates in a conversion ritual of some 200 Christians into Hinduism, at Aranai Village in Valsad district of Gujarat, Dec. 20, 2014. Hardline Hindu groups take exception to conversion to minority religions but not conversion into the Hindu fold. (Getty Images)

The issue of religious conversion frequently emerges as a hot-button topic in Indian political and social discourse. Recently, the issue has emerged again following the killing of 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau by members of a tribe on a small island in the Andaman Islands. Based on posts his parents have shared on Instagram and records maintained in his private journal, Chau traveled to North Sentinel Island to bring the Sentinelese tribe to Jesus. The Sentinelese people, a small tribe living on the island, fiercely oppose all interactions with the outside world and have been known for attacking or killing fisherman and members of the coast guard who have found themselves unintentionally on or close to the island.

This incident raises several issues, such as the use and abuse of “tribal tourism.” This is pertinent as Chau apparently was aware that the island is off limits to outsiders under Indian law to protect the unique culture of the Sentinelese people. He got to the island by allegedly paying six fisherman the sum of Rs 25,000 — the equivalent of a little more than $350 in U.S. currency — to take him to the island.

This incident also thrusts the issue of religious conversion into public discourse:

On several occasions, the issue of conversion has been used as a tool to attempt to justify violence committed against minorities in the country. There are specific examples of this especially when it comes to conversion to Christianity. For example, following the anti-Christian violence in the Dang district in Gujarat in 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a national debate on conversions. A similar sentiment was expressed by Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa following violence against Christians and churches in the state in 2008. The fear is that a knee-jerk response, using this incident as a case study could once again bring up instituting more Freedom of Religion laws in the country.

Freedom of Religion laws have been implemented to monitor and deter religious conversions in certain states. Despite efforts to create a national Freedom of Religion law, these have been deemed to fall under the state list and therefore are present as state-level laws. Thus far, these laws are operational in eight states — Odisha (in 1967), Madhya Pradesh (in 1968), Chhattisgarh (in 2000), Gujarat (in 2003), Himachal Pradesh (in 2006), Jharkhand (in 2017), Uttarakhand (in 2018) and in Rajasthan (in 2006) by a way of judgment in the Jodhpur high court but not by statute.

The 1978 law in Arunachal Pradesh has not been implemented yet as the rules have not come out yet and the law in Tamil Nadu, implemented in 2002, was repealed in 2012 due to pressure from minority groups.

While it is agreed that forced conversions are wrong and violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, I suggest that these laws are not the appropriate response as they should be considered a form of structural violence against Christians, who represent 2.3 percent of the country’s population. In his seminal 1969 article “Peace, Violence and Peace Research,” political scientist Johan Galtung defines violence as “the cause of the difference between the ‘potential’ and the ‘actual’ between what could have been and what is.” Therefore, he considers violence as anything that prohibits an individual from attaining their maximum potential. These could be either physical forms of violence or structural forms.

While we may be familiar with more sensational acts of physical acts of violence such as the murder of Australian doctor Graham Stains in 1999 and the anti-Christian riots in Orissa in 2007 and 08, we must also consider other forms such as structural violence which are equally harmful. Galtung identifies “structural violence” as that which occurs when there is no clearly identifiable perpetrator of violence, rather it is caused by unequal structures.

Adopting a Galtungian framework, I contend that these laws violate a person’s “potential” which is their freedom to practice a religion of their choice, as promised under national and international law. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which provides that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”

Article 18 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom … to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” For this reason, the UN Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, Asma Jahangir, in her 2008 report on the country expressed her deep concern for their implications on religious freedom.

These laws must be viewed as directed towards Christians for three reasons. The first is evident in the punishment. Both the prison terms and fines are higher for conversion of women, minors or members of scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, who are viewed as easily susceptible to Christian conversion, in all states with exception to Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, where it is equal.

The second lies in the nebulous phrasing of key terms in the act such as “force, fraud and allurement,” variations of which are present in all the acts. By not defining these terms, it is left open to interpretation of significant details. For example, can the access to missionary-run education and healthcare be considered “allurement”? If one preaches about a heaven but cannot prove that it exists, does that constitute “fraud”? The third reason is a question of equal applicability of the law. These laws do not regard reconversion activities to Hinduism as illegal thereby excluding activities of groups who are trying to convert Muslims, Christians and Adivasis into Hinduism which protects attempts of reconversion adopted by Hindutva-oriented groups in certain parts of the country.

Lawyers and activists in India have admitted that there have been negligible convictions under these laws, however, these laws create an atmosphere of hostility and lead to more violence or insecurity among minority communities. For example, in a well-publicized case in 2017, 30 carol singers who were students from a theological college in Madhya Pradesh were detained on alleged charges of religious conversion based on complaints from the Bajrang Dal. Responding to this incident, Bishop Cleemis, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India said, “from the point of Christian community, this whole incident... do[es] not help us to keep our confidence in the government intact. We are losing our confidence in the government.” This feeling of insecurity has been on the rise as incidents of hate crimes against Christians continue to rise across the country. The Evangelical Fellowship of India called 2017 “one of the most traumatic year for Christians” when they reported 351 instances last year suggesting that this was not an exhaustive list, and more were occurring without being reported.

With the 2019 general election fast approaching, scholars and activists expect more polarization on communal issues, as it has proven to be a winning formula in the past. The next few months will reveal if we will see an uptick in physical and structural violence against Christians or if this could switch to the much larger Muslim minority.

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M. Sudhir Selvraj is a Ph.D. candidate at the King’s India Institute in King’s College London.

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