Imperialist Goals Masked in the Garb of Religious Freedom

The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom submit annual reports evaluating conditions in the nations of the world regarding the citizens of those countries and their ability to profess and practice their faiths. Then there are myriad non-governmental organizations and activist groups, including the Hindu American Foundation, of which I am an executive council member, publishing their own reports. Such a massive effort of looking into others' internal matters is not undertaken by any other country. The U.S. is in many ways, the world's self-proclaimed policeman, seeking to keep world order. Whether it is right or wrong is not the focus of this essay, but instead we can argue that based on what the State Department's latest report says about religious freedom in India, the report and the exercise is flawed, myopic, and blinkered.

These exercises minding others' businesses should be carefully evaluated and critiqued so that we can understand why we wish to pry into others' lives and to claim for ourselves the ability and the right to do so. A colonial, imperialist hangover, one might say, as well as the Christian's wish to be his/her brother's/sister's keeper. The White Man's Burden may indeed be heavy and self-imposed, but how that burden is carried and is disposed of is no longer just the white man's concern but my concern too, and the concern of many like me --not Christian, not white, and not burdened with minding others' businesses.

Scholars and academics of the West have spent enormous effort at "understanding" and "describing" the other. Some have been sympathetic, some have embraced the other, but most have been very critical. As Rajiv Malhotra says in his recent article about Oprah Winfrey's visit to India and what she said about India, "the history of the West is replete with assertions of supremacy over the non-West on account of religious, racial, cultural and economic factors." Those assertions and evaluations have led to the reshaping of the world to imitate and mimic the West, at tremendous cost. Just to take the example of the ongoing Olympic games, one wonders why the rest of the world should play the sports invented and organized by Western countries, building expensive stadia, training athletes at enormous cost, and sending them to compete with others in a nationalistic rivalry replete with jingoistic slogans, and supremacist attitudes!

Malhotra refers to Andrew Rotter's work related to American policy toward South Asia during the Cold War, and Rotter's finding that American officials saw Indians as difficult to comprehend, and ". . . grotesque, smelly, disorderly, unsanitary, promiscuous and primitive." To some extent, and despite the reshaping of the world after the Cold War and India's newfound technical and technological savvy and its abilities to sell goods and services to the West, those notions about India still prevail, one can argue. Or, given the fact that the West is in some retreat, its officials and academics can still use their powers to continue to bring pressure on those developing countries and slow them as they gain upon them. One can see the U.S. official reports on religious freedoms and human rights as an example of pushing the "other" on to his/her back feet.

So, let us look at the latest State Department report on religious freedoms and what the department says about India. Here are excerpts from the report:

  • During meetings with senior government officials, as well as state and local officials, and religious community leaders, senior U.S. officials discussed religious freedom issues, including reports of harassment of minority groups and missionaries, violence against religious minorities in Karnataka, and the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

  • Despite the national government's continued rejection of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), a few state and local governments continue to be influenced by Hindutva. During the year, some states passed laws based on Hindu religious beliefs that restrict the religious freedom of minority groups. For example, on September 29, Gujarat passed a bill that prohibits cow slaughter and requires a permit for transporting cows. The law mandates a seven-year jail term for anyone directly or indirectly involved in the slaughter, storage, transportation, or sale of cow or cow products. Critics argue that such laws deprive Muslims, Christians, and lower castes of livelihoods, a source of nutrition, and the right not to observe Hindu religious restrictions.

  • There are active "anticonversion" laws in five of the twenty-eight states: Gujarat, Odisha (formerly Orissa), Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Although Arunachal Pradesh enacted its law in 1978, the government has yet to frame the rules needed for enforcement. Gujarat has a Freedom of Religion Act (2003) and Rules (2008) that proscribe religious conversions by means of allurement, force, or fraud.

  • In 2007 Andhra Pradesh enacted the Propagation of Other Religions in the Places of Worship or Prayer (Prohibition) Law. The law allows the state to prohibit the propagation of one religion near a place of worship or prayer of another religion. Thus far, the state has identified only Hindu religious sites for this protection.

There is a lot more in the report but let me focus on the above. We are told that American officials discussed with political leaders and others concerns about harassment of minorities and missionaries. There is no mention that these officials expressed any concern about the majority community being harassed, discriminated against, killed, or maimed. For example, in late 2010 Hindus were attacked in the Deganga district of West Bengal. Indian newspapers, following a self-imposed rule, never mentioned who attacked whom with what consequences. In the case of the Deganga riots, Hindu families were attacked and uprooted from their homes, Hindu men and boys killed, and women raped by their Muslim neighbors as they were egged on by a Muslim legislator. It is the rare Indian journalist who will stick his or her neck out to report that Hindus were targeted and attacked. The State Department report is mum about this as if it does not matter what happens to Hindus in India.

Regarding Christian missionaries, posing as tourists and traveling on tourist visas, there is enough evidence about the havoc they cause in India as they traverse the country with money in their pockets and dreams in their heads of planting churches and converting Hindus. There is a reason that India provides different types of visas, just as the U.S. does. Trying to shame the country by reporting that missionaries have been harassed or denied visas is one way of keeping the pressure on.

As to the banning of cow slaughter, the State Department officials fail to note that the banning of cow slaughter is included in Article 48 of the Indian Constitution! Of course, one can argue that by seeking to ban cow slaughter India deprives its Muslims, Christians, and Dalits of their right to eat cows. But there is a reason as to why cow slaughter is sought to be banned: the cow is considered sacred by Hindus, and that sentiment is millennia old. Dog meat trade is illegal in the U.S. and many parts of the world. Other animals are protected by national, regional, and international conventions. Based on that rationale, why should it not be legal in India to ban cow slaughter? Anyway, why should the ban on eating cow meat be considered a restriction of religious freedom? Does it say in the Quran, in the Bible, or in any religious texts of the Dalits that the eating of beef is religiously mandated? This conflation of a cultural tradition or habit with religious freedom is an example of either the sheer mendacity of the State Department officials who compile the annual reports or their vast ignorance about matters cultural and religious.

Regarding anti-conversion laws, it is important to understand some of the basic ideas about religion and religious freedom to understand the nature of the problem in India. What we believe is religion and faith differs between the Indic traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) and the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). If we make a monopolistic claim on God, and if we believe only our faith is "true," how we approach others and what we wish to convince them about will change/differ.

Some scholars, like S. N. Balagangadhara and his student Jacob De Roover have argued that unless we understand the difference between religions and cultural traditions, we will not be able to deal with the problem of religious conversion and religious conflict. They say that there is a false assumption that a variety of cultural traditions must be understood as religions. When we put both a monopolistic and prophetic religion and a set of cultural/spiritual traditions in the same box, we then have the problem of religious conversion, which then becomes a "common problem" across nations, cultures, and traditions.

The second false assumption is that religions are rivals—not rivalry of any sort, but a competition "between the teachings, doctrines or belief systems of the two religions in question." If Christians claim to have truth on their side, and God on their side, then the natural corollary is that I have various devils and falsehoods in my camp! So, my claim to my own God/s and truths are "false," and I am a rival who has to be defeated. For the "religions of the book," true religion has existed since the creation of humanity, but degenerated over time, to be rescued either by Christianity or Islam. This rivalry, based on truth claims, is then transferred to other cultural traditions, and Christians and Muslims therefore believe that all the other "religions" are their competitors.

For Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, different cultural/spiritual traditions do not constitute religious rivalry because they think of their traditions as part of the human quest of the search for truth. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Religions are different roads converging on the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?" The wish to convert the other, to proselytize, therefore has led to conflict between the two groups: Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists on the one hand, and Christians and Muslims on the other. As India and other countries got colonized, people who were influenced by Western philosophy and traditions began to adopt the worldview of the Western/Christian colonizers regarding the nature of religion and religious freedom, ignoring the fundamental and logical contradictions between Indian/native cultural faith traditions and Abrahamic religions.

The result is that after liberation and independence they were still bound to the Western/Christian ideas. We can see this slavery to Western/Christian ideas reflected in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in the Indian Constitution, which both privilege Christianity and Islam because the document writers accept the freedom to propagate religion and to proselytize as fundamental freedoms. In India, we should therefore be asking the following questions instead of beating the Western/Christian/Muslim drum of religious freedom: "How have the Indian traditions succeeded at alleviating the problem of religious conversion in the past? Which mechanisms and dynamics were at play there? To what extent do these persist? How could they be rediscovered and revived in the interests of a vibrant pluralism in India today?"

And finally let us tackle the State Department's concern that the 2007 law enacted in the state of Andhra Pradesh regarding the propagation of other religions in the places of worship or prayer and how the law has been applied only to Hindu places of worship. Duh! It is simply because Hindus don't proselytize, don't spread canards about other religions, and Hindus don't send their missionaries to churches and mosques to convert Christians and Muslims! That this obvious fact is not acknowledged by the State Department report goes to show the sheer cussedness of the assertions made in the report.

Alas, few in academe or in the media or in the human rights arena are going to challenge these nonsensical assertions and the imperialistic venture that such report writing constitutes. The Chinese are the only ones who have struck back hard and been dismissive of the Western, American-led human rights and religious freedom exercises. Interestingly, the Chinese have been able to reach the point of challenging Western hegemony by adopting the ideology of communism crafted in Europe, which in turn is an illiberal ideology. It is time that the West and the Chinese took a look at India and how India was the cradle of a variety of cultures that allowed others to live and prosper side by side—the thousands of languages, jati groups, cultural mores of food and drink, dress and worship all existing and prospering cheek by jowl for millennia. The right to propagate illiberal religions and ideologies will be the death knell of diversity in India.

First published on Patheos,


Featured Review
Tag Cloud