Andre Beteille, 80, is one of India's most distinguished sociologists. Beteille, chancellor of Ashoka University, speaks to Anjali Puri on the complex and contentious matter of religious conversions, and other issues of the day. Edited excerpts:
We are speaking on Christmas day. What do you think of the efforts of the government to appropriate Christmas, turn it into Good Governance Day by issuing memos, directives and so on?
If they are doing it, this goes fundamentally against our secular Constitution. The state and government should neither try to promote nor suppress religion. They should leave religion alone. Religion is a social fact. Our Constitution enjoins on us that we should not interfere with religious practices, including religious propaganda. The informed citizen needs to be vigilant about it.
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The ghar wapsi programme of "reconverting" people to Hinduism is an old programme of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and affiliated organisations. But it is causing great disquiet in the current environment. Why?
If you try to bring about change in the religious practices and beliefs of people, it is one thing. You can come to my house and say, Dr Beteille, you don't understand what Islam has to offer; to say, try and look into it and you will surely become a Muslim.
But if you try to do it in terms of a distinct political agenda, then people have a right and a responsibility to ask what is happening and why it is happening. The ruling party, and particularly the leader of the current government, have aroused suspicions that they have a hidden agenda in doing these things, which is to transform this society into a Hindu society from a pluralistic one. That is the real issue (in the conversion debate): is the pluralistic character of Indian society, safeguarded by the Constitution, being undermined by policies that seek to bring back communities into the Hindu fold?
You're saying ghar wapsi is an illiberal idea in the current context because it espouses a majoritarian sentiment. But anti-conversion laws are also illiberal. So what's the way forward for society?
Yes, these laws are illiberal. If you look at the way in which societies change, the part that legislation plays in social transformation is not large. A much larger part is played by changes in the attitudes, views and beliefs of people, which is brought about by hundreds of thousands of individuals like you and I. Let the citizens of this country decide which way they wish to move. It is not a good idea for the government to play a part in engineering social change./
What do you think of the RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s arguments about conversions from Christianity in the past, and about them now saying all conversions should be legally regulated?
They have got onto something that has a factual and historical basis: that the tribal people had in fact been absorbed into the Hindu fold over centuries, and the Christian missionaries came in and converted by fraud or guile or inducements that had nothing to do with religion. We must acknowledge this. The massive conversion of tribal people into Christianity was not always done without inducement. But to now tell those who were converted and have been Christians for generations that this was done through fraudulent means in the time of your ancestors, and, therefore, you should give it up and come back… I would say, you, as an individual, are free to do that. You can go to them and say, this was done by inducements that are impermissible, and they should reconsider, and I can write a piece to the opposite effect. But bringing in government and legislation is not a good idea. Legislation brings in, in an open way, the play of power. You and I, as individuals, have no power.
What does it say about us that conversion rarely seems a matter of an individual wanting spiritual change? It is rather a case of people wanting to liberate themselves from extreme social and economic deprivation, or wanting to secure state benefits or simply take another wife or husband.
Conversion everywhere has been partly for opportunistic reasons. But it would be wrong to say it has been entirely for those reasons, even in India. For instance, in Bengal there were people who converted to Christianity because they felt that Hinduism had exhausted itself. You see, conversion is complicated by the fact that you move out of one religious community into another religious community. It is never an act that the individual does entirely on his own. So the individual has to calculate, what is the loss that he risks by moving out of his community, and what does he expect to gain by moving into a different community. These are complicated choices.
Gandhi was against conversion. He was a strong believer in religious pluralism. He would say, you were born a Hindu, you now feel dissatisfied with Hinduism, you want to become a Christian. But first search yourself, maybe you haven't looked hard enough in your own religion. Having looked hard, try again and try a third time. If you still don't find what you want, convert. It is a very strict test of good faith.
Is it valid?
The point is very simple. If you move from one religion to another you must do it in good faith. Even if there are benefits, you must not do it for them. That would be acting in bad faith. Religion is a serious matter. I don't have the inner feeling to be a religious man, but I take religion seriously.
Before the elections, you had said that while you were not personally in favour of Narendra Modi, the BJP coming to power was not a bad thing. But looking at the last seven months, in particular the attempts to ideologically reorient the country, how do you feel? Are you surprised?
I am not really surprised and I haven't lost faith in democracy. It is here to stay. I believe an alternation between parties should be a feature of every modern democracy. There is something disturbing about the same party being in power for a long time, and the same family controlling a political party from generation to generation… (As for what is happening now), it will continue to happen. I think we should be vigilant and scrutinise what goes on, attack it, criticise it, but I don't think we should panic.
On a different note, what do you think of the assertiveness in recent years among Indian women? Is it significant and a sign of hope?
I think so. Since I am a professional sociologist, I am asked all kinds of impossible questions: For example, tell us, in five short sentences, what the most important change in India is since independence. I have found an answer. If I were to pick out one single change in the whole of India, I would say it is the secular trend in the increase in the age of marriage for women. It is not going to be reversed. That is important because it betokens many things. For example, that women are getting educated, and seeking employment outside the home. But this trend does not operate all through Indian society. It is a middle-class phenomenon and we should recognise this. But it is a good thing.