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Gandhi 'didn't like' Dalit, tribal conversion to Christianity, even Sikhism or Buddhism

By Bhaskar Sur*
On January 23, 1999 Graham Stuart Steins, an Australian missionary working among the tribals of Odisha, was burnt to death along with his two children by members of the Bajrang Dal, an outfit close to the BJP. Stein had been working among the tribals and taking care of people suffering from leprosy, and in turn, he was deeply loved adored by the tribals impoverished, exploited and excluded.
The gruesome murder of the Steins set the pattern of subsequent pogroms adroitly planned and ruthlessly executed by the proponents of the same ideology. Since then Christian missionaries have been repeatedly attacked, and churches vandalized.
Yet it would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the debate related to religious conversion of the tribals and untouchables. Conversion, which implies an individual's freedom to reject the religion she or he was born into and embrace another or not to believe in any religion, is an integral part of democratic freedom.
However, Mohondas Gandhi, so sentimentally associated with the Indian variety of secularism, was vehemently against it. For him Hindism represented the national culture of India and conversion, an anathema.
The fact remains that missionaries, by converting the untouchables and tribals, were liberating them from the endemic caste oppression, introducing them to modernity and giving them a voice.
Gandhi looked with horror anything that challenged the 'varnashram' or the caste system as it was for "the preservation of harmony and growth of soul". It is the rising dissent among the untouchables that prompted him to come up with an ingenious idea -- renaming them as 'Harijan' or 'God's children' and relaxing the taboo related to purity while keeping the caste system in place.
Gandhi looked upon untouchables or Dalis with a degrading patronizing attitude. In a debate with Dr Mott, a missionary, he remarked:
"Would you, Dr Mott, preach the Gospel to untouchables? Well some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam or Hinduism and Christianity than can a cow..."
Though it shocked Ramchandra Guha, 'a staunch Gandhian', it is very much of a peace with Gandhi's core philosophy without its deceptive frills. So these helpless 'cows' must be protected from the 'cow eating' missionaries.
Ambedkar rightly remarked: "All these arguments of Gandhi are brought forth to prevent Christian missionaries converting the untouchables", and "Gandhi was grossly unjust to missions."
This apparent man of peace was at odds with the secular Indian state under the British rule. He did not conceal his intentions when, with God's blessings, he would come into power: "If I had the power and could legislate the first thing I will ban is conversion."
Yes, in free secular India, Gandhians and their Hindutva brethren have banned conversation in eight states where missionaries or mullahs have been framed in fabricated charges of forced or 'inducing' the person to convert.
Gandhi, we are told, had a great admiration for Christ, but only unconcealed hostility towards those who, braving all odds and in most trying circumstances, carried his word to those living in misery.
Gandhi was only against Dalits converting to the ruler's religion; he was equally against conversion to Buddhism or Sikhism
It would, however, be wrong to think that Gandhi was only against Dalits converting to the ruler's religion; he was equally against conversion to Buddhism or Sikhism, both of Indian origin. This brought him in conflict with Tagore, the poet and a public intellectual. Tagore, a liberal, enthusiastically supported the idea of Dalits converting to Sikhism, which arose out of anti-Brahminical reform movement .In an open letter he wrote:
"If the sanatani Hindus (most orthodox) are not prepared to extend the ordinary rights of a civilized existence to the Harijans, they should not also cry against these unfortunate victims seeking shelter in the Sikh fold."
This annoyed and irked Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's secretary. He wrote:
"Bapu could not believe you could ever have given your assent to a proposition like this because If he renounces Hinduism he renounces Hindu culture and all that goes by that name."
So Gandhi, for all his humility, was a defender of varnashrami or casteist Hindu culture rather than the plural and syncretic Indian culture!
Tagore, who by this time had grown into a radical, wrote with greater passion and eloquence defending the untouchable's right to embrace a new religion that gave him more dignity:
"I do hold the view that Buddhism and Sikhism were attempts from within at the eradication of one of the most intractable social deformities of Hinduism (caste system) that turns into ridicule all our aspiration for freedom". 
In the same letter (January 4, 1937) he fervently wished that Sikhism would have 'a nationwide perspective.'
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all the three nation states, fragments of the British Indian Empire, have increasingly become more intolerant societies with minorities -- Christians or otherwise, enjoying less and less religious (also civic) freedoms than they did under the British rule.
Isn't it therefore better that in the current crisis of secularism and in the suffocating atmosphere of hate, we should rather seek it in the much maligned colonial laws rather than the Gandhian cant?
---
Source: Author's Facebook timeline

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