The Conversion Debate in India: Tambaram to Hans Ucko and to a Subaltern Perspective
By Jesudas M. Athyal
The significance and relevance of conversion, especially to Christianity, has been a part of the theological and
political discourse in most pluralistic societies, particularly in India. This debate became more pronounced during the post-colonial
era when the missionaries were on the retreat and the indigenous theological thinking veered more towards the building up
of a nationalist church which would be sensitive to the cultural - religious ethos of the country. One of the characteristics
of the current debate, however, is that while conversion, implying a shift in one's religious allegiance, has been frowned
upon within the mainstream theological circles, several secular scholars (particularly historians) have taken a different
view of the matter. The theologians agree that the right to conversion is justifiable in principle at the theological and
political levels; however, they are convinced that in a pluralistic and communally surcharged atmosphere, especially like
that of India, what needs to be affirmed is dialogue between religions; not conversion which threatens to jeopardize inter-religious
relations. Dr. Hans Ucko, the Programme Executive of Inter-religious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches,
in his Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture delivered last year in Bangalore develops an ecumenical position on conversion along
these lines (Dr. Ucko's paper was published in the People's Reporter under the rather insightful caption, 'The Problem with
Conversion is the Arrogance" (1). While Dr. Ucko affirms that everyone should have the right to change his/her religion,
he is convinced that we should not be involved in making others change their religion. Quoting from a report of a Theravada
Buddhist-Christian consultation organized by the WCC in 2004, he states at the outset of the paper itself his main argument:
"Conversion has become a threat and tension for religious diversity and harmony."
Several secular scholars, on the other hand, have in recent times, gone beyond general discussions on conversion
as a Constitutional right, and have focused sharply on the dynamics of conversion in the Indian context. A few historians
of the Delhi University, in a booklet published under the caption, Christian Conversions, stated at the outset itself: "A
sustained programme of violent attacks on Christian missionaries is a new element in the history and tradition of Indian life".(2)
They agree that forced conversion or conversion through fraudulent means is illegal, but added that there is little evidence
that Christians (or any other minorities in India) have been indulging in this kind of large scale conversion. On the other
hand, they argue that by failing to act decisively against the Hindu chauvinist organizations which are targeting Christian
priests and missionaries in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and elsewhere, the authorities are only increasing the likelihood of copy
cat attacks in other places too. According to them, the recent plea for a 'national debate' on conversion is not an innocuous
one, but one that is orchestrated by the Hindutva forces bent on fomenting communal tension in the society.
In the midst of such divergent positions at the theological and secular academic levels, this paper makes an attempt
to review some key discussions on conversion, baptism and the church. The International Missionary Conference held in Tambaram
(1938) - a key milestone in these discussions - is briefly discussed, followed by a summary of the debate of two leading theologians
- M. M. Thomas and Lesslie Newbigin - in this area. The paper concludes with a discussion of the subaltern perspective on
conversion, in the context of the paper of Hans Ucko. A review of the ecumenical discussions on mission in the post- Salvador
Conference (1996) phase would indicate that Ucko's thoughts are fairly representative of the mainstream ecumenical thinking
on conversion. Whatever that be, by reviewing a few dominant trends in Christian thinking on conversion, this paper argues
that theological discussions on conversion that do not address seriously the sociological realities of specific contexts,
are bound to be misleading.
Conversion & Community
Among all the topics associated with Christian mission in India, theologically and sociologically the most explosive
ones are conversion and baptism; no discussion on mission can be silent on them. While trying to understand the phenomenon
of conversion, scholars tend to distinguish between religions with a dominant 'mystic' spirituality and 'unitive' vision and
religions with a dominant 'prophetic' spirituality and 'messianic' approach. Indian religions are generally considered as
belonging to the former category and the Semitic religions to the latter, though there are traits of both in all religions.
Religions which consider the mystic experience as the ultimate point of spiritual self-realization, take history with its
plurality as of no ultimate significance, and the many religions in history with their emphasis on nama (name) and rupa (form)
as ultimately so relative and insignificant, that they are tolerated as equally true or untrue. On the other hand, religions
which believe that God has revealed Godself and God's purpose in a concrete historical event or a tradition of such unique
events with fixed nama and rupa and as continually acting in history, see spiritual self-fulfillment as consisting in propagation
of the news of the unique event and inviting others to a fellowship of those who acknowledge the revelatory event which will
also be the sacramental sign and instrument for bringing God's kingdom on earth.(3) Discussions on the equality of all religions
implying the non-necessity for conversion from one to the other on the one hand and the need for 'outreach mission' as the
sharing with others one's faith while inviting them to a new fellowship on the other, become meaningful only when placed in
the historical and spiritual context of the specific characteristics of each religion.
At the International Missionary Conference in Tambaram one of the crucial questions raised was about the meaning
of Christian witness in a society of different religions and secular ideologies. The mood at the Conference, unlike at previous
missionary conferences, was decisively in favor of the 'younger churches' situated in pluralistic contexts. Hendrick Kraemer
was emphatic in his assertion that the divine revelation in Christ transcends western Christianity and that this transcendence
makes Asian and African incarnations of Christianity not only legitimate but also imperative. As he put it: "The point
that needs now to be made is that in principle and for reasons of history, new incarnations and adaptations of Christianity
in the concrete Asian and African settings are natural and legitimate."(4) The argument for contextual 'incarnations'
of Christ emerged from the understanding that the revelation in Christ transcends all religions and cultures including perhaps,
Christianity as an institutionalized religion.
Kraemer came in for serious criticism from Asian theologians for his almost absolute separation of the ultimate
truth from penultimate values and for giving syncretism a rather negative theological meaning. His focus on the need for Christian
mission to be sensitive to multi-faith contexts, however, set the pace for the theological discussions in India on conversion,
baptism, the church and koinonia over the next few decades. In tune with the nationalist awakening and independence movements
in most parts of Asia and Africa, there was a strong plea at Tambaram for the unhindered development of indigenous churches.
The central emphasis there reflected "the new search by Asian churches for their selfhood freed from the paternalism
and domination of missions to be able to relate themselves to the emerging national selfhood of their peoples within the universality
of the worldwide church."(5) The emphasis at Tambaram on the centrality of the church came in for criticism later - by
the evangelicals who feared that the centrality of the gospel was forgotten, and by ecumenists who stressed the significance
of the 'agenda of the world' for the mission of the church and the church understood as the sign of the coming unity of humankind.(6)
The understanding of the mission of the church was varied, but Tambaram ensured that questions of missiology in Asia would
be integrally related to ecclesiology in the future.
K. Baago raised, during the post-Tambaram period, the question of the relation between conversion and the church.
His question was whether "membership in the visible fellowship" was integral to conversion. Lesslie Newbigin, missionary
and bishop in India for a long period, argued that the adoption of the traditions and customs of the 'Christian community'
is indeed required for one to 'belong to Christ.' A personal commitment to and belief in Christ need necessarily be nurtured
within the fellowship of the church, he believed. "The New Testament knows nothing of a relationship with Christ which
is purely mental and spiritual, unembodied in any of the structures of human relationship."(7) M. M. Thomas joined the
discussion at this point and argued that in conversion, the issue is neither the participation of the convert in a visible
Christian fellowship nor the outright denial of any form of church but, "the transcendence of the Church over religious
communities, which makes possible the Church's taking form in all religious communities."(8) The key problem here is
neither the affirmation nor the denial of church but the question: What form should the church take in India?
Thomas - Newbigin Debate
While in Christianity conversion is generally seen as the turning to God, and baptism symbolizes a radical break
with one's past and participation in the new humanity offered in Christ Jesus, in India, these acts often lead to a radical
break with one's own social and cultural past and identification with a new social community. In societies such as ours, therefore,
conversion and baptism raise several questions. Is it possible to accept the lordship of Christ and remain culturally as Hindus?
Can Christ-centered fellowships within other religions be a substitute for the organized church? Easy answers to these questions
are not possible, but it is in wrestling with these questions alone that authentic patterns of Christian witness emerge in
the Indian context. One of the landmarks in theological discussions on Christian mission and the church in India was the 'Thomas
- Newbigin debate' in the 1970s.(9) Since these discussions primarily deal with the theological and missiological issues related
to conversion and community in the Indian context, they have considerable relevance for us and it would be appropriate to
briefly discuss them.
M. M. Thomas' starting point is the theological affirmation that, "the new humanity in Christ, that is, the
humanity which responds in faith and receives the liberation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, transcends the church."(10)
By church he means "the visible and recognizable groups of people whose names are on our various membership roles."
For him, the visible and structured church can indeed be considered as the nucleus, the first fruit and the sign and sacrament
of God's kingdom. The church itself, however, is not the new humanity and God's saving purpose is not confined to the church.
There is the need to recognize and affirm the signs of new humanity outside the church too. As Thomas put it: "since
Christ transcends not only cultures but also religions and ideologies, the fellowship of confessors of faith in Jesus as the
messiah should not separate from their original religious or secular ideological community but should form fellowship of Christian
faith in those communities themselves."(11) He is convinced that since the law of India treats baptism as transference
from one religious community to another, baptism should not be made the condition of entry into the Christian fellowship but
made a sacramental privilege for later use. In the Indian context, therefore, the challenge before the Christian fellowship
is not to form another religious communal body separate from the mainline society but to stay within the existing socio-religious
structures as Christ-centered fellowships while trying to transform them from within.
Thomas further points out that there are theological issues which are intertwined with legal and social questions
on conversion and the church. Theologically, he maintains that the indispensability of baptism is an unsettled question. When
baptism becomes the condition for entry into the fellowship of the church, "it fails to convey its full meaning and purpose
as the expression of our solidarity with the new humanity in Christ, which transcends all communal and caste solidarities."(12)
He quotes T. M. Philip and Joseph Balcastro and argues that the New Testament does not teach that baptism was a condition
for salvation or for church membership, but baptism was available for the disciples of the coming church - that faith in and
acceptance of Jesus as the Christ was the basis of membership in the church.(13) In this connection, Thomas' own reflections
on baptism are worth considering:
I have no doubt that baptism in the New Testament sense is incorporation into Christ and his congregational life.
But the meaning of baptism has been distorted for long in India as a mark of transference of sociological, cultural-judicial
loyalties from one community to another. The real question, therefore, is how to regain the meaning of water-baptism. Probably
it can be done by just dissociating in time from the Spirit-baptism conceptually (suggested by Krass and Duraisingh) and from
legal condition of entry into the church structurally and by considering baptism as a privilege. A disciple, already in the
Fellowship of the Church and participating in its other privileges, including the Lord's supper, may ask for it some time
in the process of his growth in Christ (as suggested by Bernard Lucas). At least these proposals are worth pursuing further.(14)
Lesslie Newbigin goes along with Thomas to a certain extent. He accepts that, "Wherever (the Christian) sees
men being set free for responsible sonship of God - there he will conclude that God is at work, and that he is summoned to
be God's fellow worker, even when the Name of Christ is not acknowledged", but he wonders whether the church cannot be
identified with the new humanity in Christ. George Hunsberger observes that in the Thomas - Newbigin debate as a whole, the
extent of the difference of meaning the two attach to the phrase 'new humanity' is never clarified.(15) More than an obscurity
in semantics, however, the lack of clarity apparently stems from basic theological differences on mission and ecclesiology
that go back to the Tambaram days in which, in the words of William Paton, the central emphasis as a whole was, "the
sense of the centrality of the Church to the purpose of God."(16) Newbigin strongly endorses this position when he says,
The Tambaram meeting marked the beginning of an exceedingly necessary and fruitful period during which missionary
thinking was, to use the oft repeated phrase, church-centric. We must grant that the period of missionary history dominated
by the 'church-centric' understanding of missions has been fruitful. It has brought us to our present consensus regarding
the unity and mission of the Church.(17)
The centrality of the role of the church is at the core of Newbigin's understanding of mission. To a certain extent,
the Asian leaders present at Tambaram too shared this view and stressed the significance of the corporate life and witness
of the church in the spread of the gospel. But there were criticisms also, for emphasizing the church and forgetting the centrality
of the gospel of the kingdom. Christian leaders such as Stanley Jones and Chakkarai Chattiar feared that, "it would lead
to a preoccupation with ecclesiastical issues and to Christian communalism to the neglect of God's world outside the Church."(18)
The global ecumenical movement later corrected this - at the Strasbourg WSCF Conference of the Life and Mission of the Church
in 1960 - by affirming that the 'world' was more integral to the gospel than the church.
In the context of the meaning of Christian mission in pluralistic societies too, Newbigin seemed clear on the
role of the church. On the question whether it is possible to have a Christian fellowship culturally within the Hindu milieu,
A man who is religiously, culturally and socially part of the Hindu community is a Hindu. If at the same time,
his allegiance to Christ is accepted as decisive, as - therefore over-riding his obligations as a Hindu, this allegiance must
take visible - that is social - forms. He must have some way of expressing the fact that he shares this ultimate allegiance
with others - and these ways will have to have religious, social and cultural elements.(19)
Newbigin seemingly rejects, as sociologically and theologically unrealistic, any form of Christian witness that
does not involve a central role to the church.
Thomas endorsed Newbigin's affirmation of the key role of the church in mission but feared that the encounter
of Newbigin - an ecclesiastical leader in India - with the liberal theology of non-Church Christianity, could make him suspicious
of any form of criticism of the present church. Thomas stressed that the question is not so much whether the church is essential
or non-essential as 'what form the Church should take in India.' For him, the liberating faith and grace which are the marks
of the New Humanity in Christ, are not confined to the framework of the Church alone. In other words, while the new humanity
in Christ is affirmed by the Church, it also transcends it and is present and can be discerned anywhere outside the Church.
He fears that Newbigin seemingly treats the Church as a 'substitute' for the New Humanity of Christ. The New Humanity, Thomas
said, is wider than and transcends the Church. "This is probably the crucial issue of difference between us in our understanding
of the Church I have anticipated," he concluded.(20)
Thomas' position that the New Humanity in Christ transcends the Church is rooted in his interpretation of the
dialectical theology of Karl Barth and Hendrick Kraemer. For Thomas, Barth's 'christcentric relativization of all religions'
is "the most fruitful theological starting point to interpret religions." Thomas, however, gives it a significant
interpretation: "Barth should have recognized that because Christ transcends the Christian religion while affirming it,
he is free to do the same with other religions. Because Christ relativizes all religions, he cannot be confined to any religion."(21)
For Thomas, one of the clearest signs of Christ's work in the contemporary world is the growing awareness of other religions,
in India especially, neo-Hinduism. "Christ, not Christianity or western culture, has been the slogan of many Neo-Hindu
movements in the 19th century, even as Christian missions insisted on the three as one packet."(22) It is in the context
of the acknowledged Christ of the Hindu renaissance that questions of Christ-centered fellowship of faith in Hinduism or Christ-centered
secular fellowship become relevant. While the New Humanity inaugurated in Christ affirms and transcends the Church, it also
widens the horizons of the Church. And therefore, the question in India remains: What is the nature of the fellowship of those
who acknowledge Jesus Christ as in some sense central and decisive, in mediating God to human persons. This question posed
by Thomas, seems the central missiological and ecclesiological concern in India today.
Neo-Hinduism to Hindu Fundamentalism
In India, the relevance of Christ-centred fellowships in Hinduism and in secular movements is a question that
has more than mere academic significance. The presence of Christ-centred fellowships that transcend the communal identity
of the church is essentially part of the history of Christian witness in India. In a survey conducted by the Gurukul Lutheran
Theological College some years ago, it came to light that about ten percent of the population in Chennai accepted Jesus Christ
as their personal savior but had chosen to continue in their own religious, cultural and caste communities without conversion
to the Christian community. Among them there were those who maintained close spiritual fellowships with other Christians,
and others, "who pursue their devotion to Christ without such support."(23) In his study, The Acknowledged Christ
of the Indian Renaissance24, M. M. Thomas traces the cases of several such as Kesub Chandra Sen and P. C. Mazumdar who acknowledged
that, Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Divine Humanity of Sonship, was decisive for their faith and ethics and they sought
to redefine traditional Hinduism both as religion and community in the light of Jesus. "They even formed a Neo-Hindu
church of Christ with its own sacraments of baptism and eucharist." There were also others, such as Kandasamy Chetty
of the Madras Christian College who maintained a spiritual fellowship with other Christians without joining the church by
baptism. Affirming that he believed in Christ as the one Saviour of humankind, he said:
Nothing would give me deeper satisfaction than to feel that I belong to his body. I am not altogether sure that I remain
outside the Christian Church. It is true that I have never felt any inward call that I could recognize as divine in its inspiration
to join the Christian Church in the narrow sense in which some evidently use the term… There is nothing essentially
sinful in Hindu society any more than there is anything essentially pure in Christian society - for that is what the Christian
church amounts to - so that one should hasten from the one to the other. So long as the believer's testimony for Christ is
open and as long as his attitude towards Hindu society in general is critical, and towards social and religious practices
inconsistent with the spirit of Christ is protestant and practically protestant, I would allow him to struggle his way to
the light with failure here and failure there perhaps, but with progress and success on the whole.(25)
There have also been Hindu groups such as that of Subba Rao of Andhra Pradesh which were, "committed to spirituality
and religious rites centred in the Crucified Christ as saviour and Healer" but which decided to stay outside the mainstream
of the structured church of baptized believers. There were others like Manilal C. Parekh who took baptism which was considered,
"a purely spiritual sacrament, signifying the dedication of the new disciple to Christ" conferring the privilege
to make known the name of Christ. But Parekh felt strongly that, "the new disciple should remain within his community,
witnessing from there." His complaint was that the Christian Church had become a civic community instead of a spiritual
In recent times, there is also the increasing popularity of house churches and para churches at which both formal
church members, 'seekers' and others have fellowship together and which for most of them, is where they find the deepest spiritual
experience and Christian fellowship. There is therefore a certain danger in dismissing all forms of unstructured Christian
fellowships as 'theologically and sociologically unrealistic.' Newbigin seems a little hasty in concluding that, "a man
who is religiously, culturally and socially part of the Hindu community is a Hindu." Theological issues and sociological
realities are seldom present in clear cut terms, especially in intensely pluralistic societies such as those in India. There
is the need for intimate contact between institutional churches and the fellowships outside and between baptized and unbaptised
believers. The challenge for us is to be open to discern the mission of God in such contexts. As the report of a seminar on
the relationship of the Church to non-baptized believers in Christ concluded, "the Spirit of God blows where it wills.
We are called to try to keep up with him."(27)
The wave of religious fundamentalism and communalism that swept across India following the demolition of Babri
Masjid in 1992 has added a new dimension to discussions on conversion and Christian mission. Religion in modern India is invariably
linked with secularism. Secularism in India is defined as freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion and also, the
promotion of progressive and renascent movements in all religions, especially movements aimed at the liberation of the downtrodden
sections of the society. Indian secularism is the product of modern Indian history, evolved mainly during the days of the
struggle for independence and later, of nation building. The neo-Hindu movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was in essence
the struggle of Hinduism to build up a religious humanism in active dialogue with the secular and socialist movements of the
country. Islam was slower than Hinduism to respond to the modern impact and reform itself from within; however, Indian Islam
too soon produced movements in line with Islamic modernism. The role of the Christian mission, especially Christian educational
institutions, in facilitating the evolution of new religious movements in India has been well documented. What is important
is that all these reform and liberative movements, in the context of the awakening of the marginalised people, contributed
to the evolution of a common platform for dialogue between renascent religions and social reform movements, in the process
building up the foundation of a secular and democratic India.
Several theologians and social scientists feel that one of the reasons for the rise of religious fundamentalism
and communalism in recent times is that this vibrant movement - at the intra-religious and inter-religious levels and also,
between secular / humanist forces on the one hand and faith communities on the other - has become dormant in recent decades.
The forces of secularism and renascent religion, vibrant at the dawn of India's independence six decades ago, are seemingly
on the retreat today. Over the years, renascent forces in religion were overtaken by more aggressive and shrill voices from
within. Equally important, the secularist movement, caught up in the web of rigid academic confines and political compulsions,
turned hostile to all expressions of religiosity in public life. Due to all these factors, the dialogue of the religious and
secular, crucial for building up a secular ethos, became dormant. In the words of M. M. Thomas,
it is my conviction that it is the strengthening of the closed secularism with this total privatization of religion
and the development of what may be called dogmatic secularism which rejects any relevance of religious values in the public
realm, along with the slackening and marginalising of religious and social reform movements, that have created the spiritual
vacuum which is now sought to be filled by religious fundamentalism and communalism.(28)
Thomas however goes on to say that the hope for a secular India lies not so much in the separation of religion
and the secular realm but in the positive and healthy interaction of the renascent and liberative elements in both. In his
own words: "if religion is part of the problem in India, religion must also be part of the solution."
Conversion: A Subaltern Perspective
In the larger context of the debate over the past several decades on conversion, let us briefly review the position
of Hans Ucko, especially as he seems to reflect the current ecumenical and mainstream theological thinking on the topic. While
Ucko agrees that everyone should have the right to change his/her religion, equally important for him is the question whether
we should be involved in making others change their religion. Throughout the Samartha Lecture, he develops his main argument
largely in response to the aggressive and often insensitive attempts at conversion by conservative evangelicals. As Ucko put
it: "I want to claim that seeking the conversion of the other or targeting the other for conversion, is for me the same
as proselytism. Many Christians will object and will claim that it is their obligation to follow the so-called Great Commission
in Matthew 28, 18-20: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
It needs to be clarified that there is considerable merit in Dr. Ucko's arguments against conversion. In India
as well as in several Asian and African countries, insensitive evangelization has been carried out by several conservative
Christian groups. Such aggressive campaigns needs to be condemned and countered. What Ucko overlooks in his paper, however,
is the distinction between evangelization and conversion. Is it true that aggressive evangelization leads to large scale conversion?
The Census of India, the official record on population statistics, clearly shows that the Christian community has stagnated
and even registered a small decline in recent years. Statistics reveal that between 1981 and 1991, the number of Christians
declined from 2.45% to 2.32% of the entire population. Government records are not always dependable, but social scientists
who study demographic trends also seem to agree that the Christian population of India in recent years has either stagnated
If conversion is virtually a non-issue in India, how do we account for the religious conflicts that occur here
on a regular basis? Gabriele Dietrich and Bastiaan Wielenga, in their life-long study of the Indian society, point towards
a number of social and economic factors that contribute to religious tension. The rising economic strength of a section of
Muslims and the growing number of Muslim proletariat in some towns are perceived as an economic and political threat by a
section of the Hindus who traditionally held economic power. This situation provides fertile ground for communal tensions
to flair up.29 In areas such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, the work of Christian social activists among the marginalized
sections has resulted in the Dalits and Adivasis shaking off their yokes of oppression and marginalisation. While few conversions
have been registered in such contexts, communal riots often occur there - not over "religious" questions - but precipitated
by caste Hindus who are threatened with the loss of their traditional control over the power structures in society.
This brings us to a fundamental problem with Dr. Ucko's main argument: he tends to take religion and conversion
as largely 'religious matters' without focusing sufficient attention on the 'non-religious' aspects of religion. Under a 'religious'
framework, each religion is guided by its own dogmas and creeds. 'Religious freedom' in such a context would involve the freedom
to not only preach and practise one's religion, but also to 'propagate' it. We have already seen that for religions with a
prophetic (messianic) characteristic, propagation is indeed an essential mandate. Tensions usually emerge in the context of
the efforts of such religions to win adherents from other faith communities. Dialogue aimed at a greater understanding among
the various religions, non-aggressive means of conversion etc., have significant roles to play in such contexts. In Dr. Ucko's
words, "inter-religious dialogue should enable us to share fully our beliefs but we must at the same time be mindful
of sharing in a way that it will not offend others..." It may be within this context, that he proposes, 'a code of conduct
on the issue of conversion' among the various religions.
What is often overlooked in such a framework for inter-religious relations, however, is the fact that every religion
has not only a 'religious' dimension but also multiple dimensions. In this context, P. D. Devanandan spoke of the three expressions
in every religion: creed, culture and cultus. Cultus, that is, rites of religious worship and sacraments, and culture - the
pattern of relating human beings to nature, society and cosmos - have primacy in the religious life of any people. In every
religious tradition there has been an integration of faith, religion (cultus and creed) and culture, forming a total complex.30
The pertinent question here is whether we can talk of any aspect of religion, including conversion, with reference to only
the faith - doctrinal dimension; we also need to consider the way religion affects the social, cultural and economic lives
of both those who believe in conversion and those who are opposed to it. In other words, matters such as conversion need to
be discussed in a context where religion is considered in its totality.
Religions emerge in social contexts, grow in response to the social and economic factors around, and evolve structures
and institutions which are also social. This is true of all contexts, all the more of the Indian context. Buddhism and Jainism
arose in India as protest movements against the dehumanization and anti-social tendencies inherent in Brahminic Hinduism.
In the 19th century, at mass movements, Dalits embraced Christianity, also in protest against their exclusion and their oppression
in Hinduism. The marginalised people of India received the Christian Gospel as the fulfillment of their aspirations and as
entry into the Promised Land. Conversion of the marginalized people in India, however, was not confined to the Christian faith.
While B. R. Ambedkar, the great champion of the Dalits, became convinced that the people oppressed for several centuries would
never get justice in Hinduism, he was equally certain that Christianity was not an option before them. While Ambedkar felt
that Jesus' message of liberation proved a "perfect antidote to the poison Hinduism has injected into our souls and a
dynamic strong enough to lift us out of our present degraded position", he felt that the Indian churches created a different
feeling. He could see that Christians, especially of South India, observed the caste system in churches. He also felt that
the Christian missions in India were 'instruments of de-socialisation' as conversion to Christianity was making Christians
of outcaste origins 'selfish and self-centred.'(31) The mass conversion of the 'untouchable' Mahar community in 1956 to Neo-Buddhism,
therefore, needs to be seen as much an assertion of Dalit power as a severe indictment of the Indian church.
In this long historical framework, how do we understand the present Indian context of communal tension and the
call for a national debate on conversion? Our primary task should be to enlarge the scope of the discussion to include the
larger socio-political dimensions also, along with religious ones in our discourse on conversion. The conflicts in India currently
between Brahminic Hinduism on the one hand and most other religions on the other, over winning or losing adherents may have
little to do with doctrinal or theological matters that can be resolved through 'sincere' dialogues across the table, but
they need to be seen also as a follow-up of the earlier social movements. In the context of an ordinance brought by the Government
of Tamil Nadu a few years ago imposing severe restrictions on religious conversions, social scientist M.S.S. Pandian noted:
"The identity that Ms. Jayalalithaa's ordinance wants to freeze is that of the Dalits as untouchables within the Hindu
social order."(32) Following prolonged struggles of the marginalized people and the minority religious groups, the ordinance
was eventually revoked. Dr. Ucko in his paper fears that, "tensions regarding conversion are often related to proselytising
activities…" It needs to be pointed out that if such tension results in the liberation of a section of people
from age-old shackles, that is certainly a tension that needs to be welcomed.
The main focus of Dr. Ucko's paper is, conversion understood as proselytism ("seeking the conversion of the
other - is for me the same as proselytism"). Quoting from a statement of the Third Joint Commission of the World Council
of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, he clarifies what he means by proselytism: "Proselytism embraces whatever
violates the right of the human person, Christian or non-Christian, to be free from external coercion in religious matters"
The question to Ucko however is whether, 'conversion as proselytism' is a relevant theme in a society such as India where
over 80% of Indian Christians are of Dalit, Adivasi or Tribal origin. He states: "the mass-conversions of Dalits were
not necessarily the direct act of evangelism. Dalits were from the beginning not targeted objectives for conversion. Dalits
came by themselves and understood conversion as Ambedkar understood it, a movement towards social acceptance. Their conversions
rock the boat and challenge the community and the society." Ucko, however, does not elaborate this subjective element
of conversion. The Madurai workshop of 1995 to which a reference is made in the paper, did consider the complexity of conversion
in the Indian context. He unfortunately does not discuss those issues in detail; instead, he tends to go back to conversion
understood as proselytism' as the central theme of his paper.
A fundamental problem in most of our ecumenical discussions on conversion is that the perspectives of the subjects
of conversion are not taken seriously. While speaking on the theme, "Inter-religious conversion" at a CCA Consultation
organized in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, M. M. Thomas stated that the individual's right
of freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion and to convert to another faith has inherent in it the condition and
guardian of all democratic freedoms and fundamental human rights in relation to state, the society and culture. Conversion
to another faith or ideology is the fundamental right of a person. "Nobody can convert another. It is the hearer who
has to convert. It is his/ her right."(33) In the communally surcharged atmosphere of India, however, there is the need
to 'decommunalise' conversion, he affirmed. In response to the demand that the government imposes restrictions on conversion,
the historians of the Delhi University noted recently that the argument is legally and morally untenable. Legally, any legislative
ban by the State on conversions would restrict the fundamental freedom of belief and would represent an intolerable extension
of State power into the most intimate areas of one's life. Morally, they noted that,
if a person believes that she has found the truth, it becomes necessary for that person to share that belief with
others. The individual's ability to think, discern and choose her beliefs must be respected as a fundamental democratic right.
To ban conversion therefore would amount to an attempt to smother our democracy. The right to conversions and democracy are
inextricably interlinked. To have a debate on the banning of conversion is like inviting a national debate on doing away with
In the context of Dr. Ucko's paper, therefore, one needs to repeatedly raise the question: Where are the voices
of the subjects of conversion? What is their experience? For them was conversion a liberative or an enslaving experience?
According to the Dalit theologian V. Devasahayam, discussions on conversion have often taken place from the perspective of
the elite or the so-called upper castes who are opposed to conversion, rather than from the stand point or the perspective
of the marginalized people. "We need to have a new perspective, and a new view point which should be the perspective
of the oppressed Dalits and the backward class."(35) The Adivasi Christians of Jharkhand - another marginalized section
who converted themselves to Christianity - too acknowledge that though the Christian faith has been indigenous to India for
almost two thousand years, the gospel that came to them in the 19th century inaugurated not only a new faith but also a radical
social transformation. Nirmal Minz in his study, notes that the work of the missionaries was not only confined to education
and medical ministries, but also to vernacular renewal, translation and, most important, to joining the people in their struggle
for land reform in Jharkhand.(36)
Hans Ucko's paper needs to be seen in the context of a growing disconnect in recent years between mainstream ecumenical
thinking and the perspective of the marginalized people, particularly on topics such as Christian mission, inter-religious
dialogue and conversion. The ecumenical movement often follows a historical/ theological approach which essentially argues
how the process of Christianisation inaugurated in the colonies by the colonial/ missionary movement, continues even today
in a significant way, in the process, undermining indigenous cultures, religions and economies. Such an argument may have
great merit in several parts of the world, but is inadequate to explain the situation in contexts such as India where Christianity
- introduced by various teams of missionaries over a period of two thousand years - had divergent and often conflicting impacts
on various sections of the society - such as the Brahmins, feudal landlords, Dalits and Adivasis - owing to deep internal
divisions and antagonisms. Unless this complexity is sufficiently appreciated and analyzed, all approaches to discussing religion,
culture and conversion would be inadequate. Just as in economics, so also in the ecumenical reading of conversion: there is
no one-size-fits-all answer.
(The writer is Associate Professor of Social Analysis and Dalit Theology at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College,
1 People's Reporter (Vol. 19, Issue 20), Oct. 25-Nov. 10 2006.
2 Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar & Pradip Datta, Christian Conversions (Kolkata: Alap, 2004), p. 38.
3 J. John & Jesudas Athyal (ed.), Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection (Hong Kong: Christian
Conference of Asia, 1995), p. 98.
4 M. M. Thomas, "An Assessment of Tambaram's Contribution to the Search of the Asian churches for an Authentic selfhood",
in International Review of Mission (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1988), p. 394.
5 An Assessment of Tambaram., p. 393
6 An Assessment of Tambaram, p. 393
7 George R. Hunsberger, Bearing the witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality (Michigan/
Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 178.
Bearing the witness of the Spirit, p. 179
9 M. M. Thomas' book, Salvation and Humanisation (Madras: CLS, 1971) trigged off these discussions. Bishop Newbigin, in
a review of the book, raised several questions and asked for clarifications from the author. Subsequently Alfred C. Krass,
Paul Loeffler and others too joined the debate. Thomas, in 1977, published these correspondence under the title, Some Theological
Dialogues (Madras: CLS, 1977). These discussions are extensively reviewed in George R. Hunsberger's, Bearing the Witness of
the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality.
10 M. M. Thomas, Some Theological Dialogues, p. 112
11 Religion, State & Communalism, p. 105
12 Herbert E. Hoefer, Debate on Mission (Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1979), p.
13 Debate on Mission, pp. 321, 312.
14 Some Theological Dialogues, p. 135
15 Bearing the witness of the Spirit, p. 180
16 An Assessment of Tambaram (Quoted,), p. 393
17 Lesslie Newbigin, The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1963),
18 An Assessment of Tambaram, p. 393
19 Some Theological Dialogues, pp. 121-122
20 Some Theological Dialogues, p. 113
21 Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), p. 111
22 Prasanna Kumari (ed.), Liberating Witness (Madras: Gurukul, 1995), p. 11.
23 See, Debate on Mission
24 M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (Madras: CLS, 1970).
25 Liberating Witness., p. 12
26 Liberating Witness, p. 13
27 Debate on Mission, p. 403
28 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 14
29 See, Towards Understanding Indian Society (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2003).
30 Risking Christ for Christ's Sake (Geneva: WCC, 1987), p. 9
31 See, Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist Movement (Madras: CLS, 1972)
32 The Hindu (Chennai), Oct. 26, 2002
33 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 95
34 Christian Conversions, p. 38
35 Religion, State and Communalism, p. 110
36 See, Mission Today: Subaltern Perspectives (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2001).
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(This paper was published in Dharma Deepika, Chennai (July - December 2007)