Religious Conversions: Rights of Indigenous Cultures to Exist v. Right to Propagate Religion

Yesterday, I read an article in the Times of India titled “Mother Mary Statue in Tribal Attire Stirs Row in Jharkhand“. Reportedly, at the centre of the controversy is a statue of Mother Mary wearing a saree with a red border, and holding Baby Jesus the way women of the Sarna tribe of Jharkhand usually do.

Since the use of a saree with a red border is characteristic of women from the Sarna tribe, senior members of the tribe objected to the “indigenous” depiction of Virgin Mary saying it is yet another tactic to convert members of the Sarna tribe into Christians by inducing them to believe that the Virgin Mary is the same as the Nature goddess, “Sarna Maa”, worshipped by members of the tribe. Christian tribals have responded saying they have equal rights over the use of the saree with the red border, for they too are tribals by birth, who have “chosen” to convert to Christianity. The argument of the Christian tribals does sound fair on the face of it, but the episode raises a few issues.

Religious persuasion is ideally a matter of choice, but ethnicity and culture are a matter of rights over one’s heritage. It may be possible to trace certain practices or mores to faith, but this need not be the case always. There could also be instances where a practice is so deeply ingrained as part of one’s lifestyle, that one may not necessarily (and probably cannot) connect it to its religious origins or significance. The Sarna tribe’s saree with a red border could be one such instance. Unfortunately, these “grey” instances end up handing a potent “indigenizing” tool to evangelists who exploit it to the hilt for obvious ends, which is why although the argument of the Christian tribals sounds fair, their intentions and conduct remain circumspect given the history of Penta Coastal-style Christian evangelism in India.

Indigenization or Indianization of Abrahamic faiths (“acculturation”) to “reap a greater harvest” is not exactly a new development. This has gone on for centuries now, which is captured incisively in Shri Arun Shourie’s seminal book, “Missionaries in India”. Evangelists, ever keen on increasing their harvests, have constantly come up with diabolically creative methods to increase their numbers and alter demographics. A lot of ink has been spilt on the implications of this for national integration and security, most of it falling on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The one thing that my tryst with law has taught me is that crystallization of an issue into a legally actionable cause, in most instances, is the best way to draw attention to it, and to do something concrete about it. It lends sharper focus to the issue, and makes it more real. Simply put, the issue stops being a mere post-dinner kathakaalakshepam topic for both the leftists and wannabe conservative “thinkers” who fancy themselves as Kautilyas of the day. One of the few people to have used the law effectively in this sense is Dr.Subramanian Swamy, and I hope more people take cue from him. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s the Judge’s pen that is mightier than a journo’s pen. Proof- The Ayodhya Judgment of the Allahabad High Court.

So how does one use the law to preserve cultures which are indigenous to India and prevent their extinction by proselytization? Over the years, under the aegis of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), several conventions have recognized the rights of Indigenous people. Following are a few conventions and declarations worth looking into to seek solutions to challenges at home:

  1. The Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 of the ILO– Ratified by India on September 29, 1958
  2. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 of the ILO– Replaced the 1957 Convention. Not ratified by India.
  3. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 of the UN– India voted in favour of the Declaration.
  4. Apart from the above, the WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) has been working on the text of a treaty to protect “Traditional Knowledge” (TK), “Traditional Cultural Expressions” (TCEs) and “Genetic Resources” (GRs).

India, according to the ILO’s website, has taken the stance that all its citizens are indigenous. If this is the official position, India has all the more reasons to raise the issue of forced/fraudulent/ induced conversions to safeguard the rights of its Indigenous people, who include the Hindus. After all, the adverse effect of religious conversion on the survival, preservation and perpetuation of indigenous cultures and their knowledge is a well-documented fact. Therefore, when preservation of traditional knowledge is being discussed, surely it is relevant to discuss the preservation of indigenous faiths.

Some might ask, why do we need to internationalize the issue, when we could probably evolve domestic solutions to address it? The issue has already gone international because the pressure to turn a blind eye to en masse conversions comes from the outside. Therefore, it must be countered at an international level on sound and multiple legal grounds to put an end to sanctimonious sermons on “Religious Freedoms”, which are employed to guilt us into allowing fraudulent conversions.

The legal position that India must push for is to strike a balance between the right to propagate one’s religion and the rights of indigenous cultures to exist. Critically, since there is no accepted legal definition of “indigenous people”, India must define it broadly enough to protect cultures and faiths which are native to it. As part of this, India must also seek creation of penalties and offences for forced, fraudulent and induced conversions.

Here it is important to make another point with respect to India’s track record in negotiation on international treaties. We have a history of playing the victim and crying hoarse about being taken for a ride after bungling up in treaty negotiations because of lack of preparedness and initiative on our part. Considering that preservation of indigenous cultures has a bearing on our identity and integration, it is in our interest to show a modicum of spine (read political will), enterprise and presence of mind in securing our interests during the negotiations on the treaty to protect traditional cultures. For a change, let us not take pride in being the ill-prepared well-meaning underdogs.

Since India follows the doctrine of “national adoption”, once India ratifies an international treaty, the treaty can be given effect to in India only after it is made part of an Indian legislation, existing or new. Therefore, ensuring that our interests are addressed in an international treaty is only half the battle won. The next step would be to enact a law to fulfil India’s commitments under the treaty. All this calls for concerted and persistent cogitation and action, not just bellyaching on social media.

Finally, it is only logical and right that instead of letting left-leaning airheads exploit tribal sentiments and issues for their vested interests, the Centre Right movement must take up cudgels on behalf of India’s indigenous people to protect what rightfully belongs to this land.

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J. Sai Deepak

Engineer-turned-Advocate, High Court of Delhi. Founder of the "blawg" "The Demanding Mistress" (http://thedemandingmistress.blogspot.in/).