Archive for Globalization and Neoliberalism

BOOK REVIEW: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

By: Vineetha Menon

Based on ethnographic fieldwork among the Bhils of Rajasthan from the year 2005 and especially from 2011 to 2015, Sarbeswar Sahoo examines Pentecostal conversion, Hindu nationalist politics and anti-Christian violence in the state of Rajasthan which had been dominated by the upper caste Rajput Hindu ideology. The author is sensitive to the fact that there are diversities and contradictions within Indian Christianity and in Pentecostalism and that there are tensions among Christians themselves. However, based largely on secondary data, the author observes that Hindu–Christian violence has escalated since BJP came into power in the 1990.

Hindu–Muslim violence has been studied by many scholars, but Hindu– Christian violence has not been subjected to any detailed analysis. Sahoo sees three reasons for this: (a) the not so long history of Hindu–Christian conflict; (b) the small and politically insignificant Christian population; and (c) the small and dispersed nature of Hindu–Christian violence. Sahoo organises his enquiry around three questions: (a) why, since the 1990s, is there an increase in anti- Christian violence? (b) Why are adivasis increasingly converting to Pentecostal Christianity? (c) What are the implications of religious conversion for religion within indigenous communities on the one hand and broader issues of secularism, religious freedom and democratic rights on the other? Tribal cultural identities are complex and politicised in relation to competitive electoral politics as well as to the “dynamics of the ‘development state’”, according to Sahoo. Ethnographic phenomenological approach is adopted by him to find answers to the three ques- tions. Although he does not explicitly acknowledge it, feminist methodologies have also been employed to some extent in the collection of women’s narratives. Enquiry into women’s conversion experience, experience of miracle healing, male–female interaction within family and church and changes in socio-economic well-being provide a gender dimension to the work. Sahoo observes that con- version to Pentecostalism led to reduced male abuse, alcohol addiction, domes- tic violence and poverty; the public domain of the church also offered dignity to women by turning them into ‘bible women’ who participate in social and cultural activities; liberation and empowerment both in domestic and public spheres increased for the converted Bhil women.

Why has there been more violence against Christians in tribal dominated areas? The answer is located in economic backwardness of tribals, the competing conversion projects of Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists and the state support to Hindu nationalists.

How Pentecostalism was accepted as a tribal religion in Rajasthan? Why more tribal women than men convert to Pentecostalism? What is the grassroots level relationship between Hindu nationalism and Pentecostalism? Questions raised in the book are diverse and interesting.

Pentecostalism is the fastest growing denomination in Christianity. In India, Pentecostals have grown phenomenally, converting more lower castes and tribals. Since dalit Christians lose economic reservation, conversion is kept secret by many. Motivations for conversion have been explained differently by different scholars but by and large, collective cultural narratives are lacking. To rectify this, Sahoo identifies four social groups: Hindu nationalists, Christian missionaries, adivasi converts and Hindu adivasis and examines the four narratives, which he views as ‘four partially overlapping spheres of meaning’. This examination of the narratives leads him to reject the materialist-incentive hypothesis of conversion. Even as he argues this out persuasively, in examining the role of the state in the conflicts, he projects exactly this logic although the terms used are welfare and development rather than material incentive.

Rajasthan has no history of communal conflict but since the 1990s, the political landmark Sahoo considers significant, riots which are expression of religious conflicts have increased. It can be understood only within the socio-political context in which conversion is carried out, avers Sahoo. Focusing on the workings of ‘Hindutva politics’, he proceeds to argue that ‘violence against Christians has risen in several states of India that are governed by the BJP and/or its allies’ (p. 156) although his fieldwork was only in Rajasthan. Reliance on newspaper reports and secondary sources for such generalised statements make his otherwise sound scholarship somewhat problematic in places. Development projects and service delivery activities such as media are used by both Christian missionaries and Sangh Parivar, concedes the author. Nevertheless, he is specifically con- cerned with how the latter used these development and welfare activities to oppose Christian missionary activities and to politically mobilise tribals to vote for BJP; conversion being a threat to the electoral support base of BJP, the party empowered Sangh Parivar activists to resist conversion, and this often leads to violence. Therefore, the argument that the BJP-led state in Rajasthan was also partially responsible for the rising violence against Christian communities.

By and large, the author brings in several interesting dimensions of conversion and provides a good historical overview of the rise of Pentecostalism in India and how Pentecostalism came to be a ‘tribal religion’. The multiple meanings of tribal conversion are also explicated phenomenologically. The book will be of interest to many. Besides sociologists of religion and anthropologists, all those who are interested in tribes and tribal development in the state of Rajasthan, academics and researchers interested in the relationship between religion and politics, political economy, women’s studies and on the legal questions on secularism, proselytisa- tion, freedom of religion, etc. will also find the book interesting and worth reading.

Conflicting projects of conversion and re-conversion, active role of agents in these and accusations and counter-accusations have led to violence.

Sahoo distinguishes between legal conversion and conversion of lifestyle as two different things but all his respondents in the category of converts are believers but not legal converts. ‘Tension-producing situational factors’ lead them to conversion but legal conversion is not preferred for different reasons, like this will make them ineligible for government’s reservation, will prevent them from being able to buy lands from tribals, invite the displeasure of non-converted tribals and so on.

Vineetha Menon

Department of Anthropology, Kannur University, Thalassery Campus, Palayad, Tharasseri 670661, Kerala, India


Source: Sociological Bulletin, Vol.68, No.2, pp.238-240


REVIEW: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

Sarbeswar Sahoo, Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018). 205 pp. $99.00 hardback.

Daniel Alvarez

Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Cleveland, Tennessee

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s book is an important read for Pentecostals and for those interested with freedom of religion. Sahoo explains that he was motivated to write this book because of the complex interactions and agents that produce anti-Christian violence in India. Sarbeswar Sahoo is Hindu, yet he writes a sympathetic ethnographic account about Pentecostal Christianity in India. Sahoo also writes in a manner that readers outside India may understand and relate to India. Impressively, he draws from a multiplicity of scholarly resources from African-American, Latin American, and US Pentecostal perspectives.

In his book, Sahoo lays out the context of the province of Rajasthan, India. He participated in the everyday life of the Pentecostal church, such as Pentecostal worship, deliverance from demons, and the descent of the Holy Spirit (18). Sahoo describes the growth of Pentecostalism in India. It has remained relatively small, only 4% of the Indian population, yet because of the sheer quantity of people in India, the number of Pentecostals was reported to be 33.5 million people in the year 2000 (22). Pentecostals have focused on the poor and lower castes/tribes in India. Missionaries have organized social ministries and have used development and social ministries as a medium to spread the gospel (23). Sahoo’s analysis of Pentecostalism in many ways appeals to the tribal Hindu worldview. It includes Spirit worship, the charismata, exorcism, divine healing and miracles.

Sahoo’s discussion explains why there is opposition to conversion to Christianity in India. Conversion carries a lot of baggage because it is infused with ideas from colonization. Colonial governments in India encouraged conversions as a means for establishing Western supremacy. In many ways, colonialism politicized conversions.

Another reason conversion in India is seen with suspicion and met with violence has to do with the politics of the quota system in India. Hindu nationalists oppose conversion because of the number of non-Hindus will increase, affecting the electoral politics in India (43). Furthermore, many converts are “Crypto-Christians” (45), refusing to legally convert to Christianity or to declare this in the Census as it may affect the quota system of India (the Indian affirmative action system). On the other hand, Hindu tribals oppose the inclusion of Christians because benefits and entitlements are diluted with an increase in number of claimants. Hindu nationalists claim Christians get benefits from both the Indian government and Christian missionaries, which is unfair.

However, it is clear that Hindu nationalists and Pentecostals speak of conversion in two different planes and are not engaging each other in this discussion. For Indian nationalists conversion means leaving indigenous culture and adopting a foreign one. Hindus see religion is an inseparable part of culture. When someone converts, he or she changes not only religion and faith, but also his or her worldview. They assert that any religion that did not originate in India is foreign and the logical conclusion is that conversion is a sin. Christianity is coercive and conversions are forced through material inducement. Furthermore, conversion is an act of aggression against Hinduism. Consequently, Hindu Nationalists passed a controversial bill that calls for a two to five year punishment for the conversion of a person that is underage, a woman, a tribal person, or a Dalit.

In spite of Hindu opposition, Sahoo’s analysis of Pentecostalism is positive. This is evident through the testimonies and narratives of those who have converted to Christianity. Overall, tribal Christian converts develop a new identity which is confident, empowered and assertive (48). A Christian perspective begins with the total transformation of life. This takes place in the heart, character, and morals of a person. The converts are still from a particular ethnicity. The difference is that now they see Jesus as more powerful than the Hindu/tribal gods and goddesses (78).

Sahoo focuses on Adivasi women who convert to Pentecostalism. In spite of Hindu opposition, Sahoo thinks that Christian conversions empower the tribal Christian converts, especially women. Sahoo agrees with other sociological studies that conclude Pentecostalism offers an escape and empowerment to women whose experiences and opportunities are limited by race, gender and class. Furthermore, Pentecostalism improves the economic and emotional status of the family in the post-conversion period. Women participate in the activities of the church, making their religious experience stronger, and more meaningful. The higher moral life means converts are prohibited from committing crimes, practicing polygamy, wife beating, and drinking alcohol. For Sahoo, faith and spiritual transformation, caused largely by miracle/faith healings, have played an important role in influencing tribal women’s decision to convert (89). There is a sense that sanctification plays an important part of life of new converts in India. Sahoo could become more familiar with Wesleyan ideas of sanctification and how this influences the Pentecostal notion of holiness in this life.

It is evident throughout this book that Pentecostalism provides a theology and a practice of healing. In his analysis of women converts, many of them attest of healing from diseases to which they could find no cure. Many realized they did not have to visit a shaman or pay fees for their services. In many cases healing was also accompanied by the miraculous, or signs and wonders. In some cases, individuals experiencing healing passed strange liquids or vomited. In some ways healing also appears to be closely related to exorcism. Sahoo describes how many times healing is attributed to individuals being set free from evil spirits. Rather than deny that evil spirits exist, Sahoo says that Pentecostals actively engage in exorcism, affirming the power of the Holy Spirit over all other spirits.

Sahoo’s book is an important affirmation of Pentecostals in non-Western contexts, especially those facing intolerance and persecution. Pentecostalism is alive and well among the poor masses because it offers the reconstruction of life at the most basic level. Sahoo has risked much in writing and his contribution serves to understand Pentecostalism and its contextualization in India. Sahoo’s book may also serve Pentecostals in the Western world get in touch with some of the most important dimensions of their theology and practice that they seem to have left behind.


@ Daniel Alvarez (2019) Pneuma, Vol.41, No.2, pp.291-293

BOOK REVIEW: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India. By Sarbeswar Sahoo. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2018, xviii + 203 pages.

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India draws upon several years of periodic ethnographic fieldwork among the Bhils of southern Rajasthan, and particularly among those who have converted to Pentecostal Christianity. The volume opens with chapters on the growth of Pentecostalism in the region, the nature of conversion, and issues of gender, and then concludes with two chapters on Hindu-Christian conflict and anti-Christian violence. Sahoo’s thesis, in his own words, is that the “ideological incompatibility and antagonism between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists provide only a partial explanation for anti-Christian violence in India” (7). A more complete explanation, Sahoo suggests, would include factors such as “competing projects of conversion of both Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists, the politicization of identity in relation to competitive electoral politics, and the dynamics of the (BJP-led) development state” (7).


That last point, on the dynamics of development, is worth highlighting. One of the things that makes this work particularly rich is the fact that Professor Sahoo’s earlier research was on development, and especially on the competing development projects of different religious communities among the Bhils. As Sahoo shows in the Bhil context, and as is true elsewhere, development projects are often initiated for the very purpose of securing the loyalty or sympathy of those served. This purpose adds a layer of complexity and competition to interreligious interactions, and contributes, in Sahoo’s view, to their volatility.

Sahoo is among a very small number of scholars who have studied Pentecostalism in India, and an even smaller number who have looked closely at the political implications of this form of Indian Christianity. That alone makes this book a unique and valuable contribution. In addition, however, Sahoo has a broad range of related literature (on Indian Christianity, on conversion, on nationalism and politics, on development, etc.) at his fingertips, and regularly brings his own research into conversation with that literature, drawing upon it, testing it, and applying its insights to his own work.

One of the scholarly debates with which he regularly engages concerns the nature of conversion. Two competing explanations for conversion to Christianity in India are dominant at both the popular and scholarly levels. While these explanations usually reflect the bias of the people articulating them, they are united in presuming that most converts have been lower-caste and/or impoverished. The first common explanation is that lower-caste Christians convert for equality and dignity that they cannot find within their own Hindu tradition. The second is that they convert for the economic or social advancement they can achieve by making use of Christian educational, vocation, and medical services. Sahoo’s work among the Bhils confirms my own intuition that whatever may have been the case in the past, the vast majority of those who convert to Christianity in India today, and particularly those who convert to Pentecostalism, do so in the wake of a miraculous healing. As one of Sahoo’s informants remarks, “in tribal society, a small miracle is a big thing; it increases people’ astha (faith), in Christ and they begin to visit the church…” (37). The occasionally temporary nature of these affiliations with Christianity—those who cease to be healed within Christianity are liable to look elsewhere—demands that we think about conversion as a process rather than a momentary act, a process that does not in every situation lead to a deepening of faith, but at least in some cases leads to deconversion.

It is interesting, in this regard, that Sahoo’s Christian informants themselves have begun to distinguish between “believers” or “followers,” on the one hand, and “converts,” on the other (74). Followers, according to Professor Sahoo, are those who have “become disenchanted with [their] earlier belief system and have experienced a spiritual and religious transformation and transition in their lives” (76). Many have received baptism, but, in Professor Sahoo’s estimation, “The only reason why they have not followed the legal means of conversion is the fear of persecution and the legal disadvantages that will follow their conversion…” (76). While these legal matters do indeed prevent many Indian Christians from openly identifying as such, I do also suspect at least a few of these “followers” might avoid formal conversion not only because of a fear of persecution and the legal disadvantages of conversion, but also because of the primacy of healing in their religious behavior and choices, that is, because of an efficacy orientation that leads them to affiliate with the community where they find healing and prosperity, and also encourages them to shop around, as it were, in search of it.

Historically, one of the points of contention between Hindus and Christians on the issue of conversion is—to use language borrowed from Reid Locklin—that Hindus have generally conceived of conversion as conversion “up” (that is personal transformation within one’s own tradition) whereas Christians have tended in the modern era to conceive of conversion as conversion “over,” that is, conversion marked by a complete and transformative shift in identity from one community to another. This contention lies at the heart of Gandhi’s assertion (and complaint, when speaking to Christian missionaries) that it was better to encourage a person to advance spiritually within their own tradition than to convert them to one’s own. My sense, however, is that Indian Christians have in recent decades begun to think a bit more like Gandhi in this regard. As Kerry San Chirico and others have shown, for example, Yeshu bhakt (Devotees of Jesus) and Khrist bhakt (Devotees of Christ) movements have recently proliferated in India. In these movements, non-Christians are welcome to come and have a transformative spiritual encounter with Jesus like they might with any non-Christian deity, but, importantly, are not encouraged to convert in the sense of formally becoming Christian. They are, in essence, encouraged to convert “up” but not “over.” One finds this new way of thinking primarily among mainstream Catholic and Protestant Christians, however. The last place one would expect to find it is among Pentecostals, because Pentecostal theology has historically tended to encourage a complete rupture with the non-Christian past at the moment of conversion (the reality, of course, is always much messier). In light of this, one of Sahoo’s most interesting discoveries is that even Pentecostal conceptions of conversion seem to be shifting, such as in the words of one of his interviewees, Madam Mary, who, according to Sahoo, “pointed out that real conversion is not about dharma parivartan (change of religion) or acceptance of Christian baptism; it is rather about jeevan parivartan or total transformation of life” (72). Whether this decreasing emphasis on a formal change of religious affiliation is a result of the influence of Hinduism or a response to the challenges that come with formal changes in religious affiliation (e.g., social resistance and hostility, a loss of reservation benefits) is a more difficult question to answer.

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is the work of an intelligent and thoughtful interpreter with excellent scholarly instincts, a knack for lucid prose, and a very broad and wide-ranging grasp of the relevant scholarly literature. It is eminently readable and would be accessible even to an advanced undergraduate audience.


@ Bauman, Chad (2018) “Book Review: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India,”Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies: Vol. 31, Article 35.
Available at:

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.




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:; Accessed 29 April 2019

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.


“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.


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CALL FOR ABSTRACTS: Religion and Socio-Political Violence in South Asia

25th European Conference on South Asian Studies, 24-27 July 2018, EHESS, Paris, France

Panel 41

Religion and Socio-Political Violence in South Asia


Frank Heidemann1, Arun Jones2, Sarbeswar Sahoo3

1University of Munich, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Munich, Germany, 2Emory University, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, 3Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, New Delhi, India

Short Panel Abstract: This panel seeks to go beyond simplistic assumptions regarding connections (or lack of connections) between religion & political violence in South Asia, and provide nuanced & sophisticated analyses of the nexus between religion, politics and social violence both in historical and contemporary cases.

Long Panel Abstract: This panel seeks to go beyond simplistic assumptions regarding connections (or lack of connections) between religion and political violence in South Asia, and provide nuanced analyses of the nexus between religion, politics and social violence both in historical and contemporary cases. Basic questions are: What is the relationship between religion, politics and violence in various times of conflict in South Asia? Is it helpful to categorize violence as either religious or political and social? Who are the different agents involved in violence, and what is their relationship with the state and with various religious institutions? How is religion used both to inspire and to counteract social and political violence? What are the subjective experiences of victimhood and how do survivors reconstruct their social world religiously, politically and socially?

Important Dates Open Close
Call for papers 01/09/2017 30/11/2017
Early registration 05/02/2018 04/05/2018
Standard registration 05/05/2018 30/06/2018

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