Christian missionary activity in Punjab should be taken seriously – Nirmal Kaur

Khalsa Sikh convert to Christianity.

Nirmal KaurThe systematic project of conversion that Abrahamic faiths necessarily set for themselves is a source of historical tension that has afflicted all parts of India for over a thousand years. – DGP Nirmal Kaur IPS

Earlier this week, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht (i.e., the chief temporal seat of the Sikh faith) made national news by declaring that Christian evangelicals have been using fraudulent and unscrupulous methods to convert the Sikhs and Hindus of Punjab on a large scale. His comments, which were trailed by similar expressions of concern by functionaries of various Gurdwara Prabhandak Committees, suggest that the Sikh religious leadership, at a meeting to be held in Anandpur Sahib on 5th September, will demand that the state government enact stringent provisions to prevent conversions from parent religions, akin to those enacted by certain other states.

The combative response of Sikh organisations to missionary activity is a testament to the recent success of well-funded conversion programmes in the state, the origins of which can be traced to the colonial era. In the districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarn Taran, where evangelical activities are mainly concentrated, the opposition has taken on particularly militant tones—also known as the Majha region, these districts, along with other parts of the erstwhile Lahore Division, once formed the heart of colonial authority in Punjab and have been a focus for Christian groups for the better part of a century.

To those viewing the issue of religious conversions in the state from a distance, the issue may seem unduly tendentious. After all, the share of the state’s Christian population has barely moved from the 1% mark over the past three censuses. Yet, what is obscured by this statistic is the complex sociology that forms the backdrop to missionary activity in the state, which has long targeted the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of Sikh and Hindu society.

By holding out the promise of free English-medium education and subsidised healthcare—rendered possible by formidable financial machinery—missionary groups have induced large numbers of Sikh and Hindu Dalits (in particular, those belonging to the Mazhabi and Valmiki communities in the Majha) to accept Christianity in practice. Yet, given that conversion implies loss of reservation benefits, it is only rational that converts choose to retain their parent faith and birth names on paper. The official figures are thus likely to significantly undercount the state’s Christian population.

Undeniably, the discriminatory way in which Sikh and Hindu religious life is still organised in the Punjab countryside has, in some cases, led Dalits to feel alienated from the tenets of the faith itself. This is a centuries-old moral failure of Sikh and Hindu society that the communities must finally confront. As important, however, is the systematic project of conversion that Abrahamic faiths necessarily set for themselves: a source of historical tension that has afflicted all parts of India for over a thousand years.

The crisis unfolding in Punjab, most importantly, exposes the philosophical chasm between indigenous Indian religions, which are nothing if not ideologies of coexistence, and those religions that exhort missionary activity. Islam and Christianity, at least in their organised forms, make absolute claims about God and salvation; a corollary of this is that all other faiths are not just misguided but blasphemous. Spreading the divine message is thus a part of the foundational logic of both faiths.

For good measure, Abrahamic faiths have managed to adapt their proselytisation strategies to the modern age. The slick, viral Punjabi videos promoting claims about the performance of miracle cures by Christian priests are redolent of the biblical zeal that has long driven mass conversions in states such as Jharkhand and Odisha.

The persistent evangelism of Christian and Muslim groups raises difficult questions about the nature of the secular state. If one group is committed to deploying a host of strategies to convert non-believers, is the neutrality and passivity of the state in fact a source of bias? The strident opposition of the Sikh leadership (who have always remained proudly independent) to conversion also gives the lie to the so-called “liberal” notion that fears over systematic proselytisation are no more than a moral panic that has been kept alive by the BJP for electoral reasons.

The peaceful resistance of the Sikh faith, whose gurus unflinchingly sacrificed their lives in the fight against fraudulent and forced conversions, at this critical juncture would strengthen the resolve of nationalists throughout the country. – India Today, 6 September 2022

Nirmal Kaur IPS is a retired DGP of Jharkhand.

Church in Punjab


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