Book Review: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

By: Gnana Patrick

History and Sociology of South Asia, Vol.13, Issue.1, March, pp.46-50.

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is an excellent volume, a welcome addition to the existing few research-based literature on debates related to Pentecostalism, politics centring on conversion and anti-Christian violence in the Indian context. Sahoo begins with a note that scholarly writing on Hindu–Christian violence, unlike that of the Hindu–Muslim violence, has been rare or ‘almost nothing’ (p. 2). That could be due to, according to him, the fact that Hindu–Christian violence is a relatively recent phenomenon or that Christian population is so small that it is politically insignificant or that the violence has been largely small scale or dispersed (p. 3). However, the shift that occurred around the 1980s in the increase of violence against Christians along with the political ascend of the Sangh Parivar is generating many studies today. Among a few such well-articulated studies,1

Sahoo’s volume focuses specifically on the neo-Pentecostals, who are working among the tribal people in south Rajasthan. Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out among the Bhils of southern Rajasthan since 2005 and most specifically from 2011, this book provides detailed ethnographic narratives of Pentecostal conversion, Hindu Nationalist Politics and anti-Christian violence. The new dimension that the book brings to the debate on the subject is the ethnographic narratives from different others who are, in some way or other, the stakeholders of the phenomenon of conversion. Thus, the narratives of those who undergo conversion and face violence on account of it, stances of Christian missionaries, grievances of Hindu nationalists and of the Hindu adivasis are brought together to shed light on the phenomenon more holistically. And the book becomes holistic also by arguing that it is not mere antagonism between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists that causes anti-Christian violence, but an array of issues such as ‘competing projects of conversion between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists, politicisation of identity in relation to competitive electoral politics, and the dynamics of the (BJP-led) development state’ which ‘are integrally related to the production of anti-Christian violence in India’ (p. 7).

The volume is cast into six chapters, including introduction and conclusion. The introductory chapter clarifies the core concept of violence, shows the lacuna in studies related to Hindu–Christian violence, situates the present study amidst the existing debates on religious conversion in the Indian context and provides a long note on the methodology of the ethnographic study undertaken among the Bhils of south Rajasthan. The second chapter discusses the history of Pentecostalism in Rajasthan, and the strategies followed by the missionaries to enter as well as to establish legitimacy in tribal society. Further, it discusses the implications of the spread of Pentecostalism for the quota system or policies of affirmative action in India (p. 23).

The third chapter, after touching upon the existing studies on conversion in terms, primarily, of their perspectives, both in the Indian and the international contexts, examines the multiple narratives of conversions, as put forth by Hindu nationalists, Christian missionaries, adivasi converts and Hindu adivasis—the four stakeholders in the phenomenon of conversion in India. Based on the narratives obtained from or representing these stakeholders, the author concludes that ‘conversion is not a straightforward practice in which Christian missionaries go in and seduce people with material benefits, but that there are multiple and contradictory discourses surrounding it, which makes the practice complicated’ (p. 86). The author goes to say that these narratives should not ‘be read as exclusivist and separable from one another, but partially overlapping spheres of meaning—discrete points of entry into the much broader discursive issue of religious conversion in India’ (p. 86).

Fourth chapter is about the adivasi women and the Pentecostal Church, which gives a detailed ethnographic account of the conversion experience of the women, their narratives of empowerment, consequent changes in the male–female relations, socio-economic well-being, etc. ‘In ancient times people were divided on the basis of high-low or pure-impure; women were considered inferior. But in the Church there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or gender. All are one/equal in Christ’ (p. 112) is perhaps the core of the narrative of women’s experience of Christianity. The author concludes that tribal women, having been ‘disillusioned by the bhopas and the hospitals, … came to the church as a last resort …’ and found the church ‘to be effective, non-exploitative, caring and compassionate’ (p. 118). They evince ‘courage and confidence to face any situation in life’ (p. 117). ‘Such life-transforming spiritual and material changes do not just defy the ‘materialist incentive hypothesis’ of conversion; they also stand as testimonies and credible explanations of why tribal women take a deliberate decision, in spite of knowing the adverse consequences …’ (p. 119).

Fifth chapter is on ‘Hindutva Politics and Anti-Christian Violence’. It situates the anti-Christian violence within the political economy of the tribal society in India. It shows that how Christian missionaries and members of the Sangh Parivar are involved today in competing projects of conversion through development programmes and welfare interventions. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) perceives conversion to be a threat to their electoral support base among the tribals, it is acutely involved in the project of gaining and sustaining the support of the tribals, which in turn, is partial explanation to the rising violence against Christians.

The final chapter sums up the narratives, demonstrations and arguments of the book. The experience of conversion among the Bhils of Rajasthan, whose explanation goes beyond the reductive argument of material inducement, is demonstrated to be a multifaceted one, involving a new identity construction, social empowerment, gender equality, agency of the marginalised, negotiation of traditional beliefs and practices, dynamics of religio-cultural continuity and discontinuity, the case of crypto-Christians, and so on. From the side of Hindu nationalists, it is a case of developing antagonism on account of a perceived threat to the Hindu cultural fabric, tribal solidarity, Hindu nationhood, electoral support base, and the like. As regards the Pentecostal Church in India is concerned, it finds itself being estranged not only from the Hindu nationalists but also from the mainline Christian denominational Churches. It is then a complex narrative that is involved in the politics of conversion and anti-Christian violence in India today.

The new dimension that this work brings in to the scholarship on the politics of Pentecostalism in India, compared to other extant works dwelling more or less on the same theme, is the ethnographic narratives even of the critics of conversion, while the other works, somehow, take for granted the views of the opponents while narrating the views of the converts to Pentecostalism. Sahoo, on the other hand, is narrating side by side the views of the different stakeholders, thereby helping the readers to understand the issue from a newer angle.

I wonder why it limits to four categories of stakeholders alone! What about the voice of a Hindu commoner or a Christian commoner who are not ‘activists’, but form the majority of Indian population? If the subject examined is conversion, it pertains to the religion, culture and decision-making of commoners, and not only of religious activists. It may be responded that the study is about the ‘politics’ of conversion, and therefore it deals only with those who are part of the process of politicisation of the subject. Unless the general reality of conversion as it goes about among the commoners is taken into consideration, how one could meaningfully debate about even the politics of conversion, lest by politics one meant only the enunciated debate in the public media.

Moreover, in spite of the conscious attempt to provide a holistic understanding of the causes of anti-Christian violence in India, and in spite of discussing the tensions between the Anglo-American and Indian understandings of secularism or religion–state relationships, the work, in my opinion, does not ‘sufficiently’ discuss the reality of caste which is said to provide a structural or systemic sociological framework for the generation of violence against Christians today. One might observe that the community that the researcher studies is a tribal community, and that it has less to do with caste in the Indian society. Perhaps the relationship of a tribal community to the Indian caste-based society, the progressive peasantisation of the tribal people and the enveloping cultural nationalist discourse could have been sufficiently discussed so as to understand the phenomenon of conversion yet more holistically.

Certain casual statements could have been avoided. For example, the author states, ‘Although Christianity was first brought to India by Saint Thomas, the Apostle, in AD 52…’ I do understand that the focus of the volume is not on history, and therefore less attention to history. However, a statement with such certitude about the arrival of Saint Thomas in ad 52 as a historical fact does not go well with the nuances the volume is seeking to bring about in the politics of conversion. Again, a statement like ‘Today, anywhere between 2.3 and 6 per cent (24 to 68 million people) of the Indian population are Christian’, (p. 21) is too casual to be mentioned in a volume on the ‘politics’ of conversion. In the next page, the author goes on to claim, ‘In India, by the year 2000, Pentecostals had grown to approximately 33.5 million strong… (p. 22). One wonders where from the author gets his free-flowing statistics! When we relate these statistics with the statement of the author: ‘Hindu nationalists have heavily opposed religious conversion because they are concerned about the growing number of converts, which has major implications…’ (p. 43), the consequentiality of such statistics is brought home.

But, finally, the merit of a fresh volume on Pentecostalism and the Politics of Conversion in India based on the ethnographic narratives of different stakeholders can never be less lauded. The epistemological intervention made by the volume will serve open many a closure. I congratulate the author for this scholarly contribution. I am sure religious studies in India will stand immensely benefitted by this timely work of Sarbeswar Sahoo.

FOOTNOTE:

1: For example, the volume by Chad M. Bauman, Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) deals with the phenomenon of Indian Pentecostalism and anti-Christian violence primarily from an embedded Christian optic, and the volume by Nathaniel Roberts, To be Cared for: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum(New Delhi: Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2016), though focusing upon the reality of care as emerging from Pentecostalism, does discuss the issue of conversion within the frame of nationalism.

____________________

@ https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2230807518810039

 

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REVIEW: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

By: SUMAN NATH (Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Government College, Kolkatta)

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is an important contribution to the study of the multifaceted dimensions of religious conversion with a special emphasis on Pentecostalism in India. The author, trained in political sociology and ethnography, explores the interplay of religion, everyday life, state and politics in rural Rajasthan. The book aptly maps India—especially Rajasthan—to the global rise of Pentecostal Christianity.

The book is divided into six chapters and each of them opens up important dimensions of the spread of Pentecostalism from the same series of ethnography, often from the same sets of qualitative interviews. This very approach gives the work an interesting methodological position. A reader will find each of the chapters offering addition to the existing interpretations. Although it appears that the book is not strictly an outcome of participant observation, some of the anecdotes in the initial chapters show the nature and extent of the author’s immersion in the field situation. He relied more on interview sessions to find out major dimensions of Pentecostalism and its everyday interplay with people’s lives, politics and state policies.

Chapter 1 introduces the issue of religious conversion and Pentecostalism in the context of intersubjective violence that plays a crucial role in disrupting the interactive plane of the society at large. It shows that Hindu–Christian conflict is understudied because of the low percentage of Christians and the geographically restricted and relatively smaller scale of such violence. Furthermore, it gives a historical reference to the fact that missionary movements that began to intensify since 1991 with the Pope’s visit to India, were perceived as a threat by Hindu nationalists. The author shows that this is also the time when a series of large-scale attacks on Christians started to take place. He argues that Pentecostalism—allegedly with its aggressive conversion—is projected as one of the reasons for such conflicts. He places his research question in this chapter, which is to explore the reasons for rapid conversion of Adivasis and other marginal sections of the population, through ethnographic research on the Bhils of Rajasthan. To address the research question, he reveals that he has used immersion-based ethnography and phenomenology. However, as one reads through the chapters, it becomes clear that although he has successfully captured multiple perspectives of the phenomenon of conversion, this book cannot be said to be a project of phenomenology primarily because it does not offer a phenomenological thematic analysis.

Chapter 2 reveals some of the fundamental reasons for the spread of Pentecostalism, rooted in the history of the marginal existence of adivasis and dalits in India and in Rajasthan. It shows how Pentacostalists concentrated on people from the margins as they had little success in their efforts among the caste Hindus. The author cites: (a) compatibility of tribal belief system and Pentacostalists, (b) the ‘magical’ healing and (c) organised move of the Pentacostalists coupled with missionary movements as major reasons of success of the conversion process. By showing a case study of the Calvary Covenant Fellowship Mission (CCFM), a Pentacostalist mission organisation, the chapter shows how magical healing becomes one of the prime reasons for conversion. It also shows that people do not usually go for conversion for immediate material gains. Pentacostalists, furthermore, do not put any bar on using the convert’s earlier surnames, which renders conversion as an ‘unofficial’ process. Hence, converts can still access state-driven benefits designed for adivasis and dalits.

Chapter 3 discusses the reasons, features, expressions, beliefs, constructs and consequences of conversion. It attempts to explore whether genuine spiritual belief and free will or material benefits drive people to go for conversion. The author reviews a rich literature on conversion addressing the issue from a variety of disciplines and shows through ethnographic narratives how people attach meanings including relief from health problems, family tension, black magic and the like as reasons for conversion. He shows that exclusion from the tribal society and common property resources are some of the extreme consequences which in some cases converts have faced.

Chapter 4 brings out the dimensions of gender in conversion. Focusing on existing literature on women Pentacostalists, who are greater in number than men, this chapter gives ethnographic details of the issues of alcohol consumption and polygamous nature of men as two unique reasons cited by women to go for conversion. Furthermore, the author gives details of how converted women found conversion as giving them a sense of self-esteem.

Chapter 5 situates the author’s ethnographic findings in the broad spectrum of politics of India and issues of conversion. It explores the claim of Hindutva forces that conversion to Christianity is a threat to integration of the nation. They firmly believe India to be a Hindu nation. While in contrast, the Church perceives conversion not as a threat to Hindus and shows how heavily marginalised and excluded people ‘seek refuge in Christ’. Hence, missionaries project themselves as agents of progress.

In a rather brief conclusion the book contests the materialist approach of seeing conversion as an outcome of immediate material gains and argues for the multiple dimensions of the phenomenon of conversion as investigated through ethnography.

This book is perhaps one of the first attempts that focuses on Pentecostalism in India through ethnographic details. Hence, it is an extremely valuable contribution to a social–scientific understanding of the issues of religious conversion at large, and Pentecostalism in particular. The author has successfully presented multiple perceptions and dimensions of the issue of conversion and Pentecostalism with ethnographic details. This book is definitely going to bridge the gap in existing knowledge about (a) the rise of Pentecostalism in practice, (b) Christianity in India, (c) the Hindutva interface and (d) policy and politics interplay.

____________________

Suman Nath (2019) Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol.53, No.2, May, pp.360-362.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0069966719833465

 

Review: PENTECOSTALISM AND POLITICS OF CONVERSION IN INDIA

PENTECOSTALISM AND POLITICS OF CONVERSION IN INDIA(SARBESWAR SAHOO)

Arun W. Jones

Asian Ethnology, Vol.77, No.1

The work under review is a rich and well written examination into the historical and contemporary worlds of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, a state in the western part of North India. These Pentecostals are part of the Bhil people, one of India’s tribal groups. Most of the population of Rajasthan has a very strong “Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology” and so Christianity has flourished among tribal people who have found themselves on the fringes of mainstream Hindu society. The study takes as its guiding themes two salient realities of Pentecostalism in much of India today: conversion and religious violence. It shows how the two are linked, not in some facile causal way, but through the minds, motivations, and behaviors of Indian Christian missionaries, Christian converts, and their religious and political opponents.

The monograph consists of an Introduction, four chapters dealing with different aspects of Pentecostalism, conversion and anti-Christian violence, and a Conclusion. The Introduction lays out the study’s fundamental ideas. It locates anti-Christian violence in a larger historical context of religious or communal violence in India and shows how the former is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in 1997 and increasing since then. Pentecostals bear a disproportionate share of the violence meted out upon Christians—primarily by Hindu nationalists. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pentecostals are also known to be very active in conversion activities in many parts of the nation and the Introduction helpfully articulates the main issues regarding conversion in India. It then moves on to matters of methodology and field work, undertaken in Udaipur district.

Chapter 2 delves into the doctrines of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes the power of God the Holy Spirit. Then follows a brief history of the movement worldwide, in India, and finally in Rajasthan, where it was first introduced in the 1930s or 1940s, but really was planted on a permanent basis in the early 1960s by K. V. Phillip and T. V. Mathews, who were Pentecostal missionaries from Kerala. Mathews formed the Native Missionary Movement (NMM) in 1964, which recruited local Rajasthani tribal persons to be missionaries to their own people. Today there are over a dozen Pentecostal organizations and independent congregations working in the state, one of them being the Calvary Covenant Fellowship Mission (CFFM), which greatly assisted the author in his fieldwork. Pentecostalism among Bhils of Rajasthan (as in other parts of the world) emphasizes spirit worship; divine healings and miracles in the material, social and spiritual realms; strict rules of belief and practice; and social ministries such as education, counselling, medical assistance, and development and relief work. In India, conversion to Christianity by Dalit and Tribal groups has deep political ramifications, since a public declaration of a change of faith would deprive such converts of the benefits which come to them as members of traditionally oppressed classes of society. Therefore, many tribal Christians do not state to government officials that they are Christians. However, Christian conversion “has created a new identity for tribals,” according to the author (46–47). This new identity is both social and internal/psychological, as Christian tribals “find their new-found identity empowering” (47).

Chapter 3 focuses on conversion. Rather than trying to develop a general theory or explanation of conversion to suit his context, the author here presents four perspectives and narratives of “differently situated actors” that are involved in the conversion process. The chapter opens with a review of the academic literature on religious conversion in India. One of the features of conversion to Christianity in India is that a majority (though certainly not all) of the converts to Catholicism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism come from Dalit, tribal and low caste backgrounds. This can be interpreted in many ways: for example, by Christians that their faith provides a refuge from social and material oppression, and by Hindu nationalists that missionaries lure people from marginal populations by promises of material and social gain. The four narratives or perspectives on conversion to Christianity that the author provides are, respectively, the Hindu nationalist narrative, the Christian (native) missionary narrative, the converts’ narrative, and the (Hindu) tribal narrative. The four narratives illuminate “how different actors/agents have assigned different meanings to the complex and controversial issue of religious conversion” (85), in which “the same theme of freedom, materiality and spirituality gets re-interpreted and reconceptualized differently by different groups” (86).

Chapter 4 focuses on tribal or Adivasi Pentecostal women. There are several reasons for this. First, the majority of Pentecostals are women. Second, they predominate in Pentecostal churches even though formal authority usually lies with men. Third, the reasons that they convert, and remain faithful to Pentecostalism, are gender specific. Indian Pentecostal women are certainly not unique in this respect, as worldwide the story is much the same. The chapter delves into women’s experiences of conversion, the role of miracles and faith healing among women, male-female interactions within the family and outside, and women’s socio-economic conditions as Pentecostals. In general, the author argues that women significantly benefit both socially and materially in the Pentecostal movement. However, this is not because missionaries or church leaders are dispensing special goods and favors to them, but because Pentecostalism positively changes women’s self-perceptions, their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and their relationships to family members and to the broader society in which they live.

Chapter 5 explores anti-Christian violence in the context of Hindutva or Hindu nationalist political ascendency. Hindu nationalists see conversion as a form of violence: “something that violates the very essence of an individual in a sense it amounts to an outside ‘take over’ of the convert’s consciousness” (63). In this view, violence by agents of Hindutva is simply a retaliation against violence first perpetrated by missionizing religious agents—whether they be Muslim or Christian. After chronicling anti-Christian violence in Rajasthan since 1990, the chapter discusses the demographic situation of the Bhils of Rajasthan, and their socio-religious, economic, and political condition. It locates Christian presence and conversion as well as Hindutva ideology and activity as significant forces in the macro-analysis, both historical and social, of the state—what the author terms “the political economy of tribal society” (156). The Conclusion of the book brings together the main arguments of the work.

This study of Pentecostalism and its opponents among the Bhils of Rajasthan is a significant intervention in the social scientific study of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the field of religious studies and the burgeoning area of Pentecostal studies worldwide. One minor criticism of the work is that it does not clearly state at the outset that Pentecostal missionaries are exclusively Indian. For the uninitiated, the term “missionary” almost immediately conjures up white men in pith helmets and white women in long dresses—a stereotype that certainly does not apply to this study. That being said, Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India provides an academically rigorous, pleasantly accessible, and intellectually fascinating study of the political, religious, social, and economic lives of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, who surprisingly share quite a bit with their fellow Pentecostals around the world.

—————–

Source: https://asianethnology.org/articles/2146; Accessed 29 April 2019

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion – Reviewed by Arun Jones

Arun W. Jones

The work under review is a rich and well written examination into the historical and contemporary worlds of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, a state in the western part of North India. These Pentecostals are part of the Bhil people, one of India’s tribal groups. Most of the population of Rajasthan has a very strong “Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology” and so Christianity has flourished among tribal people who have found themselves on the fringes of mainstream Hindu society. The study takes as its guiding themes two salient realities of Pentecostalism in much of India today: conversion and religious violence. It shows how the two are linked, not in some facile causal way, but through the minds, motivations, and behaviors of Indian Christian missionaries, Christian converts, and their religious and political opponents.

The monograph consists of an Introduction, four chapters dealing with different aspects of Pentecostalism, conversion and anti-Christian violence, and a Conclusion. The Introduction lays out the study’s fundamental ideas. It locates anti-Christian violence in a larger historical context of religious or communal violence in India and shows how the former is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in 1997 and increasing since then. Pentecostals bear a disproportionate share of the violence meted out upon Christians—primarily by Hindu nationalists. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pentecostals are also known to be very active in conversion activities in many parts of the nation and the Introduction helpfully articulates the main issues regarding conversion in India. It then moves on to matters of methodology and field work, undertaken in Udaipur district.

Chapter 2 delves into the doctrines of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes the power of God the Holy Spirit. Then follows a brief history of the movement worldwide, in India, and finally in Rajasthan, where it was first introduced in the 1930s or 1940s, but really was planted on a permanent basis in the early 1960s by K. V. Phillip and T. V. Mathews, who were Pentecostal missionaries from Kerala. Mathews formed the Native Missionary Movement (NMM) in 1964, which recruited local Rajasthani tribal persons to be missionaries to their own people. Today there are over a dozen Pentecostal organizations and independent congregations working in the state, one of them being the Calvary Covenant Fellowship Mission (CFFM), which greatly assisted the author in his fieldwork. Pentecostalism among Bhils of Rajasthan (as in other parts of the world) emphasizes spirit worship; divine healings and miracles in the material, social and spiritual realms; strict rules of belief and practice; and social ministries such as education, counselling, medical assistance, and development and relief work. In India, conversion to Christianity by Dalit and Tribal groups has deep political ramifications, since a public declaration of a change of faith would deprive such converts of the benefits which come to them as members of traditionally oppressed classes of society. Therefore, many tribal Christians do not state to government officials that they are Christians. However, Christian conversion “has created a new identity for tribals,” according to the author (46–47). This new identity is both social and internal/psychological, as Christian tribals “find their new-found identity empowering” (47).

Chapter 3 focuses on conversion. Rather than trying to develop a general theory or explanation of conversion to suit his context, the author here presents four perspectives and narratives of “differently situated actors” that are involved in the conversion process. The chapter opens with a review of the academic literature on religious conversion in India. One of the features of conversion to Christianity in India is that a majority (though certainly not all) of the converts to Catholicism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism come from Dalit, tribal and low caste backgrounds. This can be interpreted in many ways: for example, by Christians that their faith provides a refuge from social and material oppression, and by Hindu nationalists that missionaries lure people from marginal populations by promises of material and social gain. The four narratives or perspectives on conversion to Christianity that the author provides are, respectively, the Hindu nationalist narrative, the Christian (native) missionary narrative, the converts’ narrative, and the (Hindu) tribal narrative. The four narratives illuminate “how different actors/agents have assigned different meanings to the complex and controversial issue of religious conversion” (85), in which “the same theme of freedom, materiality and spirituality gets re-interpreted and reconceptualized differently by different groups” (86).

Chapter 4 focuses on tribal or Adivasi Pentecostal women. There are several reasons for this. First, the majority of Pentecostals are women. Second, they predominate in Pentecostal churches even though formal authority usually lies with men. Third, the reasons that they convert, and remain faithful to Pentecostalism, are gender specific. Indian Pentecostal women are certainly not unique in this respect, as worldwide the story is much the same. The chapter delves into women’s experiences of conversion, the role of miracles and faith healing among women, male-female interactions within the family and outside, and women’s socio-economic conditions as Pentecostals. In general, the author argues that women significantly benefit both socially and materially in the Pentecostal movement. However, this is not because missionaries or church leaders are dispensing special goods and favors to them, but because Pentecostalism positively changes women’s self-perceptions, their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and their relationships to family members and to the broader society in which they live.

Chapter 5 explores anti-Christian violence in the context of Hindutva or Hindu nationalist political ascendency. Hindu nationalists see conversion as a form of violence: “something that violates the very essence of an individual in a sense it amounts to an outside ‘take over’ of the convert’s consciousness” (63). In this view, violence by agents of Hindutva is simply a retaliation against violence first perpetrated by missionizing religious agents—whether they be Muslim or Christian. After chronicling anti-Christian violence in Rajasthan since 1990, the chapter discusses the demographic situation of the Bhils of Rajasthan, and their socio-religious, economic, and political condition. It locates Christian presence and conversion as well as Hindutva ideology and activity as significant forces in the macro-analysis, both historical and social, of the state—what the author terms “the political economy of tribal society” (156). The Conclusion of the book brings together the main arguments of the work.

This study of Pentecostalism and its opponents among the Bhils of Rajasthan is a significant intervention in the social scientific study of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the field of religious studies and the burgeoning area of Pentecostal studies worldwide. One minor criticism of the work is that it does not clearly state at the outset that Pentecostal missionaries are exclusively Indian. For the uninitiated, the term “missionary” almost immediately conjures up white men in pith helmets and white women in long dresses—a stereotype that certainly does not apply to this study. That being said, Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India provides an academically rigorous, pleasantly accessible, and intellectually fascinating study of the political, religious, social, and economic lives of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, who surprisingly share quite a bit with their fellow Pentecostals around the world.


This review is written by Arun Jones for Asian Ethnology.

http://asianethnology.org/articles/2146

Book Review: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

A Timely Tryst with a Thorny Issue

By: Valson Thampu

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is a significant study of one of the most sensitive issues in the politics of religion in India. Barring the limitation that usually goes with ethnographic studies—the exclusive focus on a limited location in studying what is a pan-Indian issue—this book is a must read for those interested in knowing the truth about conversion and re-conversion in India.

The author is neither an apologist for Christianity nor a camp follower of Hindu nationalism. He is an objective academic and a thoroughbred researcher, who brings methodological soundness, knowledge of ground realities and intellectual objectivity to bear on his analyses and conclusions, which merit attention for those very reasons.

Sahoo sets out to study in the tribal belt of Rajasthan, in the wake of an earlier attempt to understand ‘the changing relationships between state and civil society’ since globalization and liberalization, ‘the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India’. The present study is richer from the author’s antecedent involvement in this region, which implies a prolonged exposure to the context and nuances of the issue addressed. The conclusions arrived at are significant for the reason that they do not stem either from Christian apologetics seeking to legitimize conversion and Hindu nationalist propaganda aimed at discrediting it. In the very nature of things, the voice of a third-party adjudicator in this deeply polarized and violently politicized discourse deserves to be welcomed.

Pentecostalism is viewed with suspicion even by mainstream churches—Catholics and Protestants. Reading Sahoo, I realize that this is at least in part due to ignorance! The gulf between perceptions and ground realities is a theme that comes to the surface every now and then in this study. The strength of Sahoo’s treatment stems from the case-studies and narratives he presents, as is seen most strikingly foregrounding the perspective and experience of tribal women vis-à-vis conversion.

Christianity is two millennia old in India; yet it is one of the least documented religions. I remember the former President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, telling me at the fag end of his term, that he used to look in vain for a ‘good enough history of Christianity in India’ to be presented to heads of states overseas whenever he was on state visits to Christian countries. The enormous contributions that this tiny (2.18% of the population as per the last census) and, for the most part, economically weak community has made to nation-building, far in excess of its material resources, remain unchronicled and unsung. Worse, orchestrated attempts have been under way, gathering momentum since the Niyogi Committee Report of 1956, to caricature Christian missionary work focused on Dalit and tribal people-groups as a conspiracy to ‘wipe out Hinduism from its land of birth’. According to the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report on the assassination of Graham Staines (1999) the main cause for the ire of Hindu nationalists against Christian missionaries outreaches to those excluded from the trajectory of our development since Independence.

This regrettable state of affairs prevails, with a semblance of legitimacy, for want of an objective perspective on the matter. Media sites of national debates and discourses have mushroomed. Extended and impassioned discourses are undertaken. But, at the end of it all, the people at large remain more confused or prejudiced. This points to the failure of the Indian intelligentsia, whose business it is to educate public opinion and serve as mediators of the truth. Sahoo’s work tries to fill the gap in respect of the widely misunderstood issue of Pentecostal conversions and their effects on the culture and well-being of tribals in Rajasthan.

Are tribals and Dalits converted through inducements? The author’s conclusion is: ‘All the interviewed women denied that they received any material incentives or allurements.’ He finds, ‘Conversion has brought life-transforming changes in the socio-economic conditions of tribal women and men. . . While the pre-conversion period was marked by extreme poverty and an unclean, unhygienic life, the post-conversion period witnessed improved socio-economic well-being.’ The signs of economic amelioration that come in the wake of conversion is due to the liberation of the people from wasteful practices like alcohol addiction, expensive and exploitative shamanic rituals in the wake of illnesses, improvements in health due to faith-healing bolstered by the hygienic and morally sound, emotionally stable life they are empowered to lead which, according to the author, is the hallmark of Pentecostal teaching. The strict, almost puritanical, enforcement of a moral code is the significant difference, says Sahoo, between Pentecostals and ‘nominal’ Christians. This is also the secret of its greater success in transforming and reforming tribal life.

The Pentecostal model of development, going by Sahoo’s findings, holds two significant insights. First, it is based on a genuine ‘transformation’ of the people, and is not driven by the number-crunching of wealth generation. Second, it results in the liberation of the people from their subjugation to exploitative and oppressive forces. The etymological meaning of ‘development’ is to ‘set free’. ‘In my interviews’, Sahoo states, ‘tribal women repeatedly testified that their lives in the post-conversion period have been marked by good health, peace and happiness…’ ‘Such life-transforming spiritual and material changes do not’, he adds, ‘just defy the “materialist incentive hypothesis” of conversion; they also stand as testimonies and credible explanations of why tribal women take a deliberate decision, in spite of knowing the adverse consequences to become believers of Pentecostalism and “make a break” with the traditional belief system they followed for generations.’ Sahoo’s inference from all of this, as stated in the concluding chapter is, ‘For them (the tribals), while the pre-conversion stage represents slavery and lack of freedom, the post-conversion stage is marked by freedom and progress; conversion has made them free of bondage, ignorance and discrimination.’

The author erects the superstructure of this argument on four pillars. He begins by tracing the growth of Pentecostalism from its early days in the US at the turn of the last century, and goes on to examine the narratives on religious conversion. He then provides account of the pre-and-post-conversion experiences of tribal women and ends up with a comparatively perfunctory examination of the Hindutva animus against conversion, following up with a summation of his findings in the concluding chapter. The merit of the author, as Professor Hans Joas points out in his foreword, is that ‘the intellectual background of its author is not in the sociology of religion but in political sociology.’ He has no axe to grind, no case to plead, in respect of religion.

I recommend this book to judges at all levels as they are in the unenviable position of having to pronounce the ‘last word’ on complex and contradictory issues like conversion without the sort of on-the-ground knowledge with which the author treats the subject; to the media fraternity, politicians and law makers.

The Christian community, unlike the Muslims, are apolitical in most parts of India, and they are, by tradition and theology, pacifist. They have no history of heroism or of confrontation. The only stick with which they can be beaten is allegation of proselytization, which they are presumably mandated to, which happens to be not the case. There is no biblical mandate to convert. Conversion, the unfortunate name given to what was envisaged as ‘transformation’, is alluring in its scope for Hindutva misrepresentation and Christian misuse. All the same, I’d recommend this book to the RSS as much as I would to Christians as well as people of religious sensitivities in all faiths who may wish to know the truth.

Valson Thampu is former Principal, St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.

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Source: https://thebookreviewindia.org/a-timely-tryst-with-a-thorny-issue/; accessed 16th January 2019

Secular States, Religious Politics

Prof. Sumantra Bose’s new book, Secular States, Religious Politics (Cambridge University Press), was released recently by former Vice President, Hamid Ansari, and Prof. Rajeev Bhargava. According to Hamid Ansari, secularism as a policy to manage religious pluralism in India has declined over the years. This decline or undermining of Indian secularism is not because of the ordinary individuals/citizens of this country, but because of the compromises made by the elite secularists of this country for the fulfilment of their own interests.

 

Rajeev Bhargava provided a critical reading of the book and argued that (1) Indian secularism should not be reduced to or equated with “defence of minority rights only”. It should look into the interests of all communities equally. (2) He also pointed out that there is a conflating of communitarian with communal. While communitarian (developing a feeling of “we-ness” or identity on the basis of one’s community) is not bad, communal is (at the expense of other community). (3) Furthermore, Bhargava noted that it is therefore important that all communities understand and appreciate their own cultural heritage and principles/practices of their own religion. This will help appreciate not only their own but also other’s culture and religions.

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India (Cambridge University Press)

Sahoo, Sarbeswar (2018) “Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India,” New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

This book studies the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India. It asks: why has India been experiencing increasing incidents of anti-Christian violence since the 1990s? Why are the Bhil Adivasis increasingly converting to Pentecostalism? And, what are the implications of conversion for religion within indigenous communities on the one hand and broader issues of secularism, religious freedom and democratic rights on the other? Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork amongst the Bhils of Northern India since 2006, this book asserts that ideological incompatibility and antagonism between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists provide only a partial explanation for anti-Christian violence in India. It unravels the complex interactions between different actors/ agents in the production of anti-Christian violence and provides detailed ethnographic narratives on Pentecostal conversion, Hindu nationalist politics and anti-Christian violence in the largest state of India that has hitherto been dominated by upper caste Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology.

ENDORSEMENTS:

“The modern state struggles with social diversity, especially religious diversity. The problem is exacerbated by a religious majority that seeks to define citizenship in exclusively majoritarian terms. India is no exception and we are all too familiar with Hindu and Muslim conflict. Less familiar perhaps is the growth of Pentecostalism in India which is often violently rejected by Hindu nationalists, but also criticized by mainstream Christianity. This book is a remarkable study of the spread of Pentecostalism mainly among the poor among the Bhil tribes of Rajastan. This fascinating account of the complexity of conversion experiences shows how religious conversion leads to both hope and social mobility. A major contribution to both the study of modern India and to the sociology of religion” – Bryan S. Turner, Australian Catholic University.

“Few topics are as highly charged today in India as is Christian conversion. Few, at the same time, raise more complex ethical and policy questions. In this vividly written and analytically sophisticated work, Sarbeswar Sahoo provides us with a ethnographically rich account of the politics and experience of Christian conversion in contemporary northern India. The result is not only one of the finest accounts currently available on Christian conversion in India, but a major contribution to the comparative study of Christianity and conversion in our contemporary world” –  Robert W. Hefner, Boston University.

“Adopting a multifaceted approach to a complex issue, Sahoo deploys ethnographic, historical and sociological material to advance a nuanced analysis of the competing conversion projects of Hindutva activists and Christian missionaries in Rajasthan, both of whom seek to win the loyalty of economically and socially marginalised Bhil tribals through humanitarian service projects. A path-breaking contribution to the study of Indian Pentecostalism, religious conversion, and inter-religious violence, Sahoo’s even handed and deeply documented research deserves careful reading” – Eliza F. Kent, Skidmore College, New York.

“A valuable new entrant in the field of the anthropology of conversion and Christianity in India, Sarbeswar Sahoo’s study of the spread of Pentecostalism among the tribes of Rajasthan moves away from a tired material incentive approach to a multilayered exploration of the many motives and meanings of conversion among Bhils men and women. His analysis of the increasing violence converts face is finely traced through the complex relationships interlinking them with each other and their pastors, with Hindu tribals, mainstream churches, the state, and Hindu nationalist organisations engaged in their own project of Hinduization and tribal conversion” – Rowena Robinson, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

 

Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/Pentecostalism-Politics-Conversion-India-Sarbeswar/dp/1108416128/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1533063128&sr=8-2&keywords=pentecostalism+in+India