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  • Why Jalalitha is wrong

    Posted On November 5, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    The first time I celebrated Diwali in London was after my marriage. Although Catholic, Nisha considered Diwali and Christmas her favourite festivals. The Pakistani grocers on Portobello Road arranged the fireworks. They even found phuljharries imported from India. For diyas we used candles. I arranged the patakas in the garden hoping they would burn the heaps of cut grass I had failed to clear. It didn’t work. So Nisha invited everyone to lunch the next day on strict condition that cleaning the mess would precede grub. Diwali thus turned into a weekend of fun.

    That was 20 years ago. How different it all seems from the narrow sectarian atmosphere of this year. Godhara and Gujarat have left deep injuries and the wounds have still to heal. Jayalalitha’s anti-conversion bill has provoked fresh divisions, rekindling doubts and suspicion. Whilst ours is a nation where trouble and violence will occur, what disturbs and depresses me is the mean-spiritedness that is around. Like some evil influence it has trapped us in its malevolence.

    This is why I’m writing about Jayalalitha’s bill and other attempts that will no doubt soon be made to curb conversion. They’re not just wrong. They make no sense.

    First let me declare my colours. Everyone of us has an inalienable right to change their religion, whether as protest or out of conviction. However, I’m not sure if there’s a corresponding right to seek converts. That presupposes the superiority of one faith over another which I find abhorrent. But Jayalalitha’s bill misses both points.

    Conversion by force or fraud was always illegal. Nor is it anyone’s case they wish to use such means. The issue is, presumably, conversion by inducement. Whilst at first sight it appears reprehensible to purchase human souls the matter is more complicated than that. What is an inducement? Is the laangar in a gurudwara or the annadhanam in a temple such? If education, medical care and

    rice are, how lasting is the conversion thus obtained? Might it not be reversible? If so, do we need to worry about it?

    However, things might look very different from the standpoint of a Dalit. Denied his rights and even his dignity, such inducements could be positive proof that another faith is more welcoming if not superior. After all, no one else is offering him anything. In fact no one else appears to care. If then he chooses to convert could it not be out of gratitude, even conviction?

    More worrying are the bizarre priorities behind Jayalalitha’s bill. I condemn those who seek to purchase human beings, their conscience and their beliefs. But has Jayalalitha paused to consider the conditions that lead people to sell their souls? As chief minister, should that not be her prime concern? It’s not the inducements she should stop – they may be the only lifeline such people have – but the depravation and degradation that makes them irresistible. When a hungry man sells his soul the government should work to remove his hunger and not worry about his soul. But when the soul is all it cares about, leaving him to die of starvation, what sort of government is that?

    Jayalalitha’s bill has other implications that are equally disturbing. She seems to see the state as the protector of our souls, the policeman of our conscience, the arbitor of what is best. But who gave her these powers? And in the case of Dalits, women and tribals, she appears to hold them less able to decide rationally than the rest of us. This is why the penalty for converting them is greater. But just because someone is poor or uneducated or female are they therefore also less capable of handling choice, determining their faith or responding judiciously to gifts and favours? Such patronisation is undemocratic. It’s also unjustified.

    If you and I lived in Tamil Nadu even we would need permission to convert. A government official would have to be assured of our sincerity. I deem that an infringement of my freedom, an intrusion into my conscience and an unwarranted expansion of the state. And the argument that it is for my good is simply bunkum. In matters of conscience the state cannot know better and must not pretend to.

    Worse, such power is liable to be misused. Think for a moment of an analogous situation. How would you react if the law claimed that to protect your freedom of speech you need to give prior intimation of your wish to criticise the government? The authorities need to be sure you really mean it and that others won’t beat you up. Of course, you are free to say what you want but the state has a duty to protect you from temptation. The answer is obvious.

    I rest my case.

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