Conversion and Anti-conversion Sentiment

What does the anthropology of conversion have to offer us in the context of the discourse over the need for a law of anti-conversion in Goa. The first question that we have to address here is: do we have one single understanding of conversion. Maybe we have to discern how several cultures understand conversion. How are we to understand conversion that occurred in the past like the one that occurred in the 13th century Goa where a large number of upper caste people converted to Vaishnavism from Saivism? How are we to understand the mass conversions under Portuguese colonialism ?
How are we to understand the conversion of Dr Ambedkar to Buddhism?Will one all-embracing concept of conversion be sufficient to understand these and other conversions? Besides, several conversion studies show how conversions were often resistance to expansionist tendencies of the colonizers or the casteist oppression of the masses? Conversions, therefore, also manifest as sites of resistance as well as sites of creative adaptations. Given the complexity of the conversions , it is important to understand that there is no one singular understanding of conversion. Unfortunately, we seem to be working with a monarchical understanding of conversion that sees it as a spiritual conquest. This is why perhaps anti-conversion sentiment has manifested in a strong way in our times.

One thing is clear conversion creates an anti-conversion sentiment. The 13th-century conversions of the Saivites into Vaishnavites in Goa had divided the so-called the Ubes and the Adves in Goa for a long time. There was violence and social boycott among these communities for centuries. The anti-conversion sentiment generated by the conversions under colonization is still lingering in our days. There is also complexity to this anti-conversion sentiment. This is not just because of the loss of demography as a result of conversions but also because conversion becomes an interrogation of the tradition one leaves behind to embrace another one. This is why we have to pay attention to this feature of conversion that renders it an interrogation. This interrogation arises mainly because of our understanding of conversion as spiritual conquest. Often the anti-conversion sentiment is dressed in a nationalist ardour and is viewed as a loss of unity and then it is perceived as disloyal to the nation by the fundamentalist brigade. Hence, it is violence that the great Hindu religion is used to let appear normal and natural. The threat of the new law against what is called forced conversion appears to be flowing from this sinister design to weaponize Hinduism and use it to create political capital.

There is no God’s eye point of view from which we can see the dynamic and plural manifestations of the process of conversion nor there is one model to frame anti-conversion sentiments. Although both are inter-related the degree and intensity of anti-conversion sentiment varies. It is so because conversion is not just a matter of religion but is also a matter of identity. This is why conversion has been managed by anti-conversion laws as well as through reconversion campaigns that are called Ghar vapasi in our days. We have also seen organised violence employed against so-called fraudulent conversions. Therefore, it is critical to decode the hermeneutical circle at play between what is understood as conversion and the anti-conversion sentiment. The intensity of anti-conversion sentiment is directly proportional to the understanding of conversion. Today we understand conversion as spiritual conquest and hence, the anti-conversion sentiment accordingly becomes one that seeks to protect one’s turf at all cost. When the conversion is viewed as denationalization as it is sought to be viewed today, it will certainly raise the tempers of many.

The issue is that we have to be sensitive to the understanding that we bring bear upon the phenomenon that we view as conversion. Given the present notion of conversion as spritual conquest the majority community seems to think all conversation are evil but because Constitution allows it appears to tolerate only to hit back at the first opportunity. This means anti-conversion sentiments is lurking all the time. This is why it important to understand the relation between notion of conversion and anti-conversion sentiment. Revision of the notion of conversion, may reduce the intensity of anti-conversion sentiment. This is why we have the challenge to debunk the outdated notion of conversion.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao