Can we ban Religious Conversions? A Response to Jaideep Prabhu

I couldn’t help but notice the irony in Jaideep A Prabhu’s strong critique of Nehru’s political imagination when my quick search informs me that he is the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. His article, Is religious conversion really a fundamental right, or can we ban it? is undoubtedly argued with a certain flair. And given that its primary appeal is the political incorrectness of the Abrahamic religious nuances, his argument would appear quite persuasive to many. However, his assumptions and rationale beg several questions.

Prabhu’s principal argument is that religious liberty as imagined within the Nehruvian secular framework of the Indian Constitution a) neither originates from the Dharmic faiths nor is compatible with it, and b) does not provide a level playing ground for Dharmic systems vis-à-vis Abrahamic faiths. Given these, Prabhu argues for “a complete ban on proselytism and religious conversion in India . . . ,” which “is only a ban on religious thought of an exclusivist and binary nature . . .” Now, even a cursory look at his argument would immediately accentuate the ignorance of an inherent “binary” and “exclusivism” that is presupposed in his very suggestion.

Let us leave aside his use of a Western construct of a unified Hinduism to delineate the character of Hinduism as essentially plural. More seriously, the author is blissfully unaware of the totalizing nature of his prognosis that imagines individuals bereft of freedom of belief. What sort of human nature does such a view presuppose? At a personal level, it presupposes that individuals have no freedom of belief and concurrently denies its causal prerequisite—the freedom of conscience. The argument is perhaps that one ought to just take whatever life offers, as one’s karma. While this line of thinking is fine for someone in Cambridge, it doesn’t really bargain a rosy picture for a Dalit who is inescapably caught in the viciousness of his karmic thinking.

It was for this reason that Ambedkar argued that change of belief was the only vehicle to escape from awful living conditions. Ambedkar’s thinking affirmed that religious beliefs have socio-ethical implications. At a systemic level, curtailing of religious liberty and controlling of one’s beliefs are best seen as instruments to subjugate an already oppressed people.

A closer look at the question of religious liberty informs us that our view about it stems essentially from how we construe our nature as human beings. The secular system, which Prabhu rightly credits as being rooted in the Judeo-Christian theology, defines humans as possessing essential freedoms. The reason why religious liberty is central to the freedom of conscience is precisely that, religious beliefs, more often than not, function as core beliefs that define who we are, in terms of our origin, purpose, morality, and destiny. If there is such a thing as ‘freedom of conscience’ that is worth its salt, it has to include religious liberty.

Any form of control over beliefs would amount to repression of the freedom of conscience. In fact, the freedom a) to speech and expression, b) to assemble peaceably that is guaranteed in Article 19, presupposes freedom of conscience and freedom of belief. That is, freedom of speech & expression and freedom to assemble have no meaning unless there is freedom to hold beliefs that one is persuaded to believe in.

Further, the Ambedkar/Nehruvian construct of the secular state is not a result of the “disdain for Hindu traditions” as Prabhu claims; rather, it is a pragmatic proposal of what they believed as the best possible vehicle for justice and fairness to all, especially for the lower castes and the Dalits. In their opinion, true equality was not conceivable generically from within our soil. (I presume that Prabhu would not throw out the notion of equitability itself as a secular imposition upon the Dharmic faiths). How else would Nehru and Ambedkar ensure any sense of equality to the 60% of the population comprising 40% OBCs and 20% Dalits, except through a libertarian understanding of justice and affirmative action?

To be fair to the Nehruvian blueprint for the nation, one could ask what other systems could have worked equitably to the whole population of a newly founded nation whose diversity is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Regardless of the moral order presupposed in a secular constitution, our quest ought to be moderated by the question, “what is the right thing to do?” In short, a moral order is not to be pronounced wrong, merely because it has Semitic origins. It would be wrong only to those who would otherwise benefit from power and caste equations and thus hesitate to imagine about equality outside their thinking boxes.


9 thoughts on “Can we ban Religious Conversions? A Response to Jaideep Prabhu

  1. Well written response. For me the premise of Jaideep’s article itself is not neutral, since the argument with which he starts talking about the Nehruvian secularism is the basic undergirding of the RSS teachings as a whole and the now publicized Hindutva principles at large. He feigns ignorance (as do most right-wing activists) that it is these very principles of Nehruvian secularism that has allowed for separation of state and religion and allowed India peace and the ability grow in the shadow of a democracy; instead of the being in a state of violence under a theocracy like its 1 day older immediate neighbour. Wish you could get this response published as an opinion negating his article.

    • Hello Sushanth. thanks for responding to my post. Jaideep’s point is not that it is neutral but that the constitution we adopt in India should be shaped by Hindu ideals. I wish to see that Jaideep undertakes at least a “thought project” to uncover the shape the constitution would take from a “Hindu” vantagepoint. It would be great to see!

      • Varughese if you read my response, i also am saying that he fails to recognize that the neutrality of the indian constitution is what has set it apart from our immediate neighbour’s state of affairs. Thought it would be great to see, I am not too hopeful of the thought project you speak of being conducted by him.

  2. Varughese,
    I just read Jaideep’s post on his blog and I was thinking: What about individual’s freedom? He had completely trampled upon it by words like “Religious markets” “Semitic faiths” “Secular theology” “Us and them” “Advantages to their faiths and world-views compared to ours”. His essay had a nice way to veil the freedom of an individual to believe what he wishes by making you get lost in the injustice to ‘leave us alone to our state’ dharmic victims.

    Thank you for giving such a fresh perspective, an Indian context (rights of dalits etc), such a clarity on christian doctrine and the calm and peaceful use of reason.

    Hopefully, some day we could meet. There would be great conversations.

    • Hello Rickson, thanks for responding to my post. Given that Jaideep is hesitant to use ideas/tools that aren’t of Hindu origin, there is little he is left with. Elsewhere, i’ve argued that a Hindu imagination of “self” is one devoid of or with a restricted sense of freedom given the overarching influence of the doctrines of Dharma and Karma. What directly entails for Hindu beliefs is some sort of fatalism, which is the opposite of “individual freedom.”
      But Jaideep is right in indirectly acknowledging that the Nehruvian/secular vision (read Judeo-Christian) embedded in the Indian constitution directly conflicts with Hindu beliefs. So that remains central to this debate.

  3. Pingback: India, equality, freedom and religion | We are philosophy

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