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.