Archive for July, 2019

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.


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.