A matter of conversion: Beyond the Bill
When Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India's foremost advocate for human rights and the individual primarily responsible for drafting that country's constitution, (including its Directive Principles), which has withstood all the great challenges that it faced in the past decades, decided to convert to Buddhism, he had this to say to his supercilious upper class Hindu critics.

"My religious conversion is not inspired by any material motive. This is hardly anything I cannot achieve even while remaining an Untouchable. There is no other feeling than that of a spiritual feeling underlying my religious conversion. Hinduism does not appeal to my conscience. My self-respect cannot assimilate Hinduism. In your case, change of religion is imperative for worldly as well as spiritual ends. Do not care for the opinion of those who foolishly ridicule the idea of conversion for material ends. Why should you live under the fold of that religion which has deprived you of honor, money, food and shelter?"

Ambedkar's march at Mahad, Maharashtra to establish the rights of the more depressed peoples to taste water from the 'Public Chawdar Lake', prohibited to them by the upper castes and by the priests, has now entered the annals of history. Thereafter his movement for social revolution, (which in its process, did not hesitate to take on Mahatma Gandhi as an adversary), captured the hearts of the people resulting in the ruling elite in India being challenged as never before.

His writings are prolific, enshrining his simply phrased but magnificently commanding thoughts on the Constitution, on religion, on rights and on morality. He made his conversion a matter of public debate, describing the fundamental principles of Buddhism as equality and Buddha as the one man who raised his voice against separatism and Untouchability. He remained a Buddhist till he died.

What does his life teach us, decades later in a different country that remains tormented by the same social justice issues that confronted him in that age? His reprimand to India that "Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic" holds perhaps truer now for Sri Lanka rather than the country of his birth.

While India's democracy has withstood the test of time notwithstanding the horrors of partition and intermittent upheavals, Sri Lanka's democratic structures, (though coping only with a fraction of the religious and racial divisions faced by our neighbour of teeming millions), have progressively weakened. Ambedkar's life and his words come as an appropriate warning for us now at a time when we contemplate prohibiting conversions by law, a step that, (if taken without adequate consultation or compromise), would undoubtedly take the Sri Lankan people closer to greater collective dysfunction. This process was quickened this week with the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religion Bill (hereafter the Conversions Bill) being put on the Order Paper of Parliament on Tuesday, ironically enough not long after physical assaults were perpetuated on the floor of the House on monks sitting also as parliamentarians.

The Bill spans a mere four pages as opposed to another and more complicated draft put forward by the Minister of Buddha Sasana. Its rationale is simplistic and its substance, devastating. It behoves us therefore to examine its clauses to see whether the purposes of bringing forward legislation to prohibit proselytizing by coercion have been fairly served. Given its simplistic nature, one does not have to go very far to ascertain that the over wide ambit of the proposed law does, indeed, lend credence to the fears of religious minorities in the country.

In the first instance, the imprecise as well as time-specific nature of its preamble is problematic. The preamble refers to a collective consensus reached by the Mahasanga and 'other religious leaders' on the need (for laws?) to protect and promote religious harmony among all religions in a context where 'other religious leaders' in Sri Lanka have, in fact, denied that they were consulted on the Bill before presentation in the House. One may well ask as to who these 'other religious leaders' are and why this reference has been a cavalier after thought, denying the minimum grace of specific nomenclature. As to whether these are issues that should, in any event, go into a preamble of a law that will enter the statute books in Sri Lanka is, of course, a different question altogether.

Proceeding from this piece of sloppy drafting, one is struck by the substantive content of the duties that the Bill imposes on the public. Its clause two states that 'no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person aid or abet such conversion." This clause is then, the crux of the Bill. It is linked necessarily to the interpretation terms in clause eight that holds out a distinctly alarming import in their highly ambiguous as well as imprecise and over-wide nature.

For example, the term 'allurement' has been defined as offers of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification, whether in cash or in kind as well as grant of any material benefit, whether monetary or otherwise and the grant of employment or grant of promotion in employment. This definition is wide enough to take in the classic example of an individual who, converts to another religion upon marrying a person of that other faith, purely for emotional reasons or for that matter, upon being genuinely convinced to convert as a matter of individual faith by his or her partner.

Succeeding definitions are as troublesome. Thus, 'force' has been defined as including a show of force, including a threat or harm or injury or any kind and astonishingly enough, threat of religious displeasure as well as condemnation of any religion or religious faith. The impact of these clauses on principles relating to freedom of speech and expression accepted as fundamental in any modern democracy are far too involved to embark on a discussion in this column due to lack of space. Mysteriously again, we have the term 'fraudulent means' defined to include 'misinterpretation' or 'any other fraudulent contrivance'. One may be forgiven for questioning as to where such terms end or indeed, where they begin, for that matter. And it can only be cause for absolute bewilderment as to how such imprecise and open-ended terms came to be in a Bill of this grave nature.

Other problems abound with the draft law. It classifies women in the same class as minors and persons categorised as susceptible to undue influence, which inclusion may have been constitutionally sanctified by some misguided draftsmen in 1978 but is obsolete in this era, quite apart from being totally insulting to fifty percent of our population. Its clauses imposing a duty to intimate each and every conversion to the Divisional Secretary of that area has attendant troubling implications where the culture of the public service has deteriorated to an extent that one could ask whether it would be wise to confer this kind of power on public officials in these capacities.

What we have here is a totally unnecessary product of years of failing to deal reasonably and effectively with overreaching of their freedoms by certain radical evangelical groups in Sri Lanka for which failure the Church also has to bear its responsibility. Its overall implications are that religious faith will be taken from a matter of individual conscience to the public arena and, indeed, involve the mind processes of magistrates before whom such alleged offences would be prosecuted.

Whether this country can stand the arbitrary transfer of the freedom of religion from the private to the public sphere brings us again to a reminder of Amebedkar's caution on the absolute necessity of preserving the individualistic sweetness of a particular religious or philosophic truth. Assuredly, if the aim of preventing forcible conversions is what propelled this particular Bill before the House, this is not the way to go about it.

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