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Political Ramifications Of Religious Conversion
By MK Teng, 31 July 2010

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BOOK REVIEW: Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura: A Case Study
This study by Sandhya Jain,  published in an attractively designed volume, is the first systematic and  in-depth inquiry into the evangelical intervention in the religious cultures of  the tribal societies and indigenous peoples of India, to “coerce the entire  tribal populace to convert to a millenarian tradition.” The study is a bold  attempt to investigate “concerted efforts by several western evangelical  denominations to achieve their objective of complete conversion” of the tribal  peoples, and the inability of the Indian state to support the tribal and the  indigenous people to preserve their religious cultural tradition. The state of  Tripura in the north-east of India, where evangelical intrusion has been  widespread, forms the universe of the field-study. Tripura, the author notes  “was chosen as the subject of the study because its large tribal population is  resisting organized armed assault upon its native faith and way of life”.

The problem of evangelical  intrusions in India is part of the larger problem of Semitisation of Indian  Society, which has a longer history in India, and forms an important aspect of  the political sociology of the Indian people. The promise of redemption, basic  to all religious expressions of Semitic civilization, has been widely used in  the last several hundred years, more specifically, after the Peace of  Westphalia in 1648, as a potent instrument of state policy for the expansion of  political power and in the consolidation of imperial authority over the peoples  subject to colonial dominance. India, a former colony of Britain, was freed  from bondage two years after the end of the Second World War. The ideological  commitment of the colonial powers to spread the promise of redemption assumed  blatantly crude expression in India, where the boundaries of the Sanskrit  civilization were remotely visible and less resistant to evangelical  intervention.

Sandhya Jain makes a departure  from the generally accepted methodological paradigms followed in the study of  social change in India. Her work marks the beginning of a new academic effort  which may, in the years to come, provide an alternative methodological  framework, and which may delink the study of social change in India from its  reformist trappings. Jain underlines a methodological format which is not  confined to investigation into the structure and function of a fixed-set, which  the Semitic methodological paradigms underline. Her work has a normative  dimension. The frame of reference she has adopted for evaluation is not located  in liberal- reformism and its abstract derivatives of logical positivism. It is  located in the history of the Sanskrit Civilization of India. She takes pains  to relate the evolution of tribal traditions and ritual cultures of the  indigenous peoples of India to the continuity of Indian History.

The work is a bold attempt to  unravel data and facts to establish that Semitisation, as a part of the  political process of the colonial era, continues to be followed uninterruptedly  in independent India. The survey, she notes, is “aimed to test the hypothesis  that over the past few years an increasing number of tribal hamlets and households  have been directly or indirectly ‘invited’ to embrace a monotheistic religion.”  She notes further: “The questionnaires were designed to learn if inducements  were made, if there was any violent incident in the village or its vicinity, if  there was an atmosphere of fear due to incidents in the neighbouring areas, if  there was native resentment against the attempts of proselytisation, and tribal  leaders were contacted to understand if change of faith disrupted family or  community life and culture and the resultant cultural alienation.”

Her revelations are startling.  “The conversions do not appear suo moto,  but by deliberate interventions of other actors, usually organized groups, with  the objective of expanding their influence in the life of a community, state  and nation. Conversions by external faiths are inherently political, which is  why they are backed by foreign funds, foreign evangelists and political support  from foreign countries. In the contemporary world conversions are potent  political and emotional issues as changes in religious demography have been  intimately linked to secessionist movements and partitions. Besides being  deeply divisive of natal societies, conversions (and partitions) are usually  achieved with violence and foreign interventions.”

Jain admits that the inspiration  to undertake the study came from persistent reports of religious political  violence in the north-eastern states, in some of which proselytisation and  religious conversion was accompanied by the growth of separatist and secessionist  movements. Her investigations have yielded facts which establish that the  political objectives of the separatists and secessionist movements are “linked  to an agenda of religious conversion which is rupturing the cultural and  civilisational unity of the native faith and culture”.

Evangelical intervention in the  traditional social culture of India, she states, is a deliberately planned  political campaign to bring about change in the tribal belief-systems and  cultural mores which, “involves the rejection of the natal socio-economic  tradition and community and transferring allegiance to the faith originating  outside the national boundaries.” The objectives are evident. With foreign  governments “playing a pro-active role in funding evangelism and promoting it  through a foreign policy and the intrusive activism of human rights groups”,  proselytisation assumes the form of a religious campaign for political  objectives - a form of neo-colonial expansion under the cover of religious  freedom.

A large part of the study is  devoted to an in-depth investigation into the religious cultures of tribal  peoples of Tripura. The inferences drawn from the facts and data yielded by the  investigation demolishes many myths: (a) that the tribal cultures in India are  an expression of a historical disconnect in the evolution of the Indian  civilization and therefore the religious cultures of the tribal and indigenous  people of India form a separate universe of spiritual experience; (b) that the  tribal people follow religious practices which form a part of the pagan past of  India; (c) that the tribal communities need to be insulated from their  environment which is predominantly Hindu to preserve their autochthonous  identity; and (d) the tribal people must be assured the right to religious  freedom, to accept the promise of redemption that Semitisation offers, to  salvage them from their pagan past.

The study brings to surface  evidence of interlocking processes of social change in India, which relate the  belief-systems and ritual structures of the tribal peoples to the Sanskrit  religious culture of India. The study uncovers the Sanskrit sub-stratum of the  religious culture of the tribal people. “In India,” she notes, “natal faith  traditions are viewed as a part of the civilisational continuum, and tribes are  embedded in this larger civilization. Movement across the spectrum is neither  threatening nor objectionable because there is an intrinsic unity of the  civilization as a whole.”

Cutting through the conventional  approaches to the understanding of tribal cultures and the cultures of  indigenous people in India, Jain formulates a new set of theoretical  propositions for a more objective inquiry into the traditions, belief-systems  and ritual structures of the tribal people. She notes, “Tripura’s ancient  tribes represent the coherence and the continuity of a living civilization,  which embraces, absorbs, exchanges values, with peoples and cultures that have  arisen from the same socio-geographic matrix”. In search of a frame of reference,  she turns to the history of Hindu India and writes, “Hindus appreciate  diversity as they accept similarity; and the absence of homogeneity does not  inculcate fear, loathing or intolerance, much less the desire to enforce  uniformity by eradicating cultural distinctiveness. A shared universe is  quickly established with the threads of unity and multiplicity, and this is the  most striking aspect of the description above. The religious beliefs,  traditions and rituals of Tripura tribes reveal the integrated matrix upon  which their culture and civilization is founded and a cohesiveness that  embraces their non-tribal neighbours, whose beliefs, prayers and practices have  been joyously embraced by the regions autochthones.”

The study reveals that the  traditions and rituals of tribal communities and indigenous people are not  pagan practices. The Sanskrit civilization does not have a pagan past. Pagan  history is a part of Semitic civilization. “Nor can we countenance academic  distortion of the spiritual beliefs of vulnerable communities through the use  of terminology such as ‘animism’, ‘spirit worship’, ‘ghosts’, or ‘pagan’, which  have no basis in the idiom of the tradition being discussed, but are a part of  verbal abuse by those seeking to exterminate an ancient way of life”.

The promise of redemption cannot  salvage people who do not have a pagan past. No Right to freedom of religion  can entitle the tribal communities and indigenous people to opt for salvation  by accepting the promise of redemption. Jain rightly notes, “Dharma is  primarily a matter of family, clan, social, religious and cultural inheritance.  All human beings are born into a spiritual tradition and initiated into  beliefs, customs, philosophy, tenets and taboos from an early period of life,  just as they are provided with a family name, Jati and Kula at birth.  Ordinarily a human being does not grow without a faith and then choose a dharma on intellectual merit or  emotional appeal on achieving adulthood.

The argument that an individual,  born embedded in a faith, has the right to arbitrarily uproot himself and cause  hurt and injury to his natal family, clan, tradition and community is faulty  and subversive of ancient societies.” Evangelical  Intrusions exposes the perfidy: “the contention that religion is a matter  of individual choice is not borne out by the experience of human society  anywhere in the world. This specious plea is in fact a legal subterfuge by  those seeking to earn adherents to a particular religious ideology by atomizing  human society in order to break and undermine traditions”.

Evangelical intervention to  induce change in indigenous social forms, from outside their systemic  boundaries, poses a threat to the existence of indigenous peoples and tribal  communities in India. It poses a greater threat to the Sanskrit substratum of  their tribal traditions and cultures. The fundamental issue, evangelical  intervention underlines, is not whether India recognizes the freedom of choice  of the Indian people to accept the promise of redemption for their salvation.  The fundamental issue is whether India recognizes the promise of redemption as  the objective of social change. Such  acceptance is tantamount to the abandonment of the continuity of Indian  history. Recognition of the continuity of the history of Indian civilization  forms the bedrock of the unity of the Indian people and their national  identity.

Jain sounds a warning, “Our study  revealed that there is merit in the conviction of Tripura’s tribal communities  that there exists a grand coordination between the evangelical and insurgent  groups operating in the state. Equally their misgivings that the drive to win  converts is powered by a political agenda, viz, to carve out a separate  Christian state(s) in the North-east, cannot be dismissed as utterly baseless,  particularly after the carving out of an oil rich Christian East Timor from  Muslim Indonesia in 2002. Evangelism in the sensitive North-East can thus pose  a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, cultural diversity and  civilisational unity.”

The study is helpful to the  common reader as well as the researcher. To the former the study will help in  understanding the issues involved in the various processes of evangelical  intervention in tribal cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples in the  North-East. To the latter, it provides an alternate methodological model for  the study of social change in India, besides furnishing valuable data and facts  regarding “religio-cultural traditions” and demographic configuration of the  indigenous peoples. To the scholar the study offers an insight into the  processes of Semitisation of Indian society which has been going on almost  unnoticed throughout the years of freedom.

In India, the secularization of  government and society is tilted in favor of the “right to freedom of faith”,  more than committed to the secular integration of the Indian people on the  basis of the fundamental right to equality. Both, the right to freedom of faith  and the right to equality are enshrined in the Constitution. The cleavage  between the right to freedom of faith and the right to equality as the basis  for secular integration of the Indian people, irrespective of creed and  religion, is brought to the surface by this study. A new beginning needs to be  made to investigate the political ramifications of the ideological conflict  that evangelical intrusion in India underlines.

Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura:  A Case Study
  Rupa & Co., Delhi, 2009
  Pages: 251
  Price: 395/-
  ISBN_HB: 9788129115652

Prof MK Teng is a retired Professor and Head of the Political Science  Department of Kashmir University; he has authored many books, including a  seminal work on Article 370

Sourced from click here to read.

Also read:
1. Adi Devta Arya Devta - A Panoramic View  of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface by Sandhya Jain
2. Foreign Contributions into India FCRA Report  2007-8

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