Religious Conversions: A need for legislation?

Dr. Lakshman Marasinghe,
Fellow of the Indo-Canadian Shastri Institute,
New Delhi, India.
I am writing this note from New Delhi two days (22nd September) after the trial where a court in Orissa had found Dara Singh, a Hindu zealot, and twelve others guilty of the brutal murders of a Christian Missionary Gramme Stewart Staines and his two young sons, Timothy (11) and Phillip (9). They were asleep in their motor camper vehicle in Manohanpur village in the District of Keonjhar in the Indian State of Orissa. It was alleged by the residents of the village of Manohanpur that Gramme Stewart Staines was engaged in converting poor indigent Hindus into the Christian faith by economic coercion. The village being almost one hundred per cent Hindus was enraged and Dara Singh and twelve others of a well known criminal fraternity having first sealed its doors set fire to the vehicle. Three members of the Staines family - Gramme, Philip and Timothy — perished in that terrible inferno. That was on the 22nd of January 1999 during the small hours of that morning.

In the 153 paged judgment (rendered in Hindi and now available in English), judge Mahendranath Patnaik found twelve of the thirteen accused guilty of murder, conspiracy to murder and a catalogue of related offences. One of the accused was acquitted, twelve were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Dara Singh described as the "Prima Dona of the offence" was sentenced to death by hanging. The Supreme court of India had laid down the conditions under which a person may be sentenced to death - and one that fits this offence - is that it must be the "the rarest of rare cases".

Although Dara Singh’s sentence of death has to be confirmed by the Orissa High Court, at some future date, facts of this case would without doubt fall within the category of "rarest of rare cases". Therefore there should be no doubt that the Orissa High Court would affirm the sentence of death passed upon him. Be that as it may, Dara Singh, no sooner the sentence of death was passed, instructed his defence counsel - Mohanty - that there should be no appeal lodged on the substantive issues and that there shall be no legal representations made before the Orissa High court at the time of its hearing to confirm the sentence of death passed upon him. He wished to become a martyr to the Hindu cause. Within twenty-four hours of these events a "Dara Singh cult" had been formed and these cultists are now making plans to take Dara Singh’s ashes in an urn through out India - when ever Dara Singh’s appointment with the hangman in Tihar Jail in New Delhi is kept.

That is a brief introduction to my concerns. In the 153 paged judgment, Judge Patnaik referred to a piece from Jonathan Swift: "we have just enough religion to make us hate each other, and not enough religion to love each other". The newspapers during the last seventy - two hours have referred to the need that religions must be propagated in a manner so that each would respect the religions of others. Respect means, respecting even the sublime idiosyncrasies of the others - such as the worship of idols - graven images - which some Christian fundamentalists abhor. Among a predominantly Hindu nation (or a Buddhist nation as Sri Lanka is), if a Christian cult were to preach against reverence paid to idols - then such attempts should be stopped by instruments of law before another conflagration of these proportions occur in India. This would equally apply to Sri Lanka, particularly in the light of the recent fire bombing of an Assembly of Gods church in Kesbawa.

Judge Patnaik referred to the need to implement the "Freedom of Religion Act" of Orissa. The Act prohibits by the use of criminal sanctions the conversion from one religion to another, by the use of force or by inducement. Having quoted many passages from the "Freedom of Religion Act", Judge Patnaik, concluded: if these provisions of Law were strictly followed, no one can have any grievance that the gullible and the innocent "Tribals" are being converted through economic and other inducements."

The fall out from these tragic set of facts has now begun to be felt. The Times of India of the 24th September, carried on its front page an observation from Mr. Kushabhau Thakre, who was the President of the B.J.P. at the time of the killings. The alleged statement was made as soon as the killings had taken place on the 22nd January 1999. It was as follows as the Times of India reported: "Christians are inviting trouble through their activities. I appeal to the missionaries that they are sitting on a stack of hay. They better be careful." At page 13 of the same issue of the Times of India, Ms. Umma Bharati, the B.J.P. Chief Ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh accused Madam Sonia Gandhi, the Leader of the Congress of using her office for engaging in Christian missionary work, and that if she ever became the Prime Minister of India she would stack the Chief Ministerial positions through out the Union with Christians. In support of her statement Ms. Bharati cites A. K. Anthony (Kerala) and Ajit Jogi (Chhattisgarh) who are both Christians and are Chief Ministers of two states with Congress administrations. It is noteworthy that Ms. Umma Bharati was one of the seven who were charged on the 19th of September 2003, as being responsible for the destruction of the Babery Mosque in Ayodhya.

There are many disturbing occurrences that one has now begun to recognize since the judgment of the Staines case. One of my own random thoughts is that the government of Sri Lanka should now consider that there is an urgent need to regulate religious conversions and the propagation of interfaith relationships through legislation, before any religious whirlwinds and hurricanes blow across the Palk Straits and strike our shores of Sri Lanka with great force. The recent events in Kesbawa causes much consternation in me.