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REVIEW: Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India: The Role of Activism

Nandini Deo’s Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India examines the complex and contingent relationship between religion, gender and social movements in India and discusses the role of activism in democratic governance. Deo asks: what factors account for success and failure of social movements? ‘Why do some campaigns work and others fade away? What is the relationship between movement impact and organizational structures? And, what is the relative balance between shifting structural conditions and activist initiative in creating new social realities?’ (11). Addressing these, Deo makes a historical comparative analysis of two dominant social and political movements – Hindu nationalism and feminist movement – of twentieth-century India and discusses the variations in the outcomes between the two. Deo argues that although success or failure of social movements is shaped by multiple factors, what matters the most are: ideologies and strategies of the organization, activist responses to structural change, and influence of and interaction with global forces (3). In particular, Deo establishes the link between strategy and success and advocates for understanding the role that contingency plays in shaping the success and/or failure of social and political movements.


The book is dived into nine chapters. It begins with a theoretical discussion on the relationship between gender, religion and the secular where Deo questions the liberal state’s emphasis on public–private division and shows how Hindu nationalism and the women’s movement have adopted strategies that constantly challenge the public–private boundaries and divisions adopted by the modern Indian state. Both movements originated in the context of colonial domination and anti-colonial resistance where ideologies of their founding members influenced their organizational strategies and actions. For example, in the early post-colonial period, while the exclusivist and violent ideologies and approaches of Hindu nationalism led to its ban from mainstream politics, the inclusive and egalitarian ideologies and strategies of the women’s movement led to its success. Considering this, Hindu nationalists changed their strategies by diversifying their organizational structure and strengthening grassroots mobilization.

In the post-Emergency period, while Hindu nationalists became actively involved in grassroots mobilization and electoral politics, the women’s movement became increasingly disengaged from electoral politics, parties and the state. Instead of returning to grassroots politics or establishing a coalition with political parties, they chased financial support from international donors, which eventually weakened their ability to mobilize the masses. In the 1990s, the Hindu nationalists emerged stronger and more successful owing to their grassroots support base and organizational diversification. As Deo notes, the ‘heterogeneity of the Sangh’s many organizations [gave] it ideological flexibility to innovate’ (118). Building on this, Hindu nationalists reached out to global/transnational forces, especially the Indian diaspora, which provided legitimacy and financial backing to strengthen the movement. In contrast, the feminist movement, due to its lack of grassroots support base, became weakened and took refuge in safer spaces. Based on this, Deo argues that the women’s movement ‘found itself [increasingly] constrained’ by foreign forces and came to be considered the ‘inauthentic’ voice within Indian politics (137). Though Hindu nationalists were similarly constrained by the Indian diaspora, they managed to shift discourse to the right because of their strong grassroots support base. As a consequence, ‘[b]y the end of the century, Hindu nationalism was seen as a major force within Indian politics while the women’s movement was regarded … as a vibrant but minority constituency’ (137). Given this, Deo concludes that ‘everyday acts of community organizing’ (8) plays an important role in determining why a campaign succeeds or fails.

This book is very unique and makes important contributions. First, for the first time, it brings together Hindu nationalism in comparison with the feminist movement of India. Second, it examines the complex and contingent relationship between ideologies, strategies, structural forces and transnational links in explaining the rise and fall of social movements. Third, it provides a very well structured and sophisticated theory of social change. And finally, it shows how ‘comparative chronological history’ as a method is vital to understanding Indian politics. In summation, the book is analytically sophisticated and rich with insights and makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the complex interrelationship between religion, gender, social movements and the state in India.


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo (2019) Contemporary South Asia;



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.




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.


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.

Governance and Innovation Conference, BARD Comilla

In December 2014, I participated in the International Conference on Governance and Innovation at the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development (BARD), Comilla. BARD was established in 1959 under the initiative of the Pakistani economist Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan. It eventually became famous for its participatory approach and innovations in micro-credit and rural development in Bangladesh since the 1960s, which later came to be known as the Comilla Model of Development.


The conference was organized by the University of Dhaka in collaboration with the GAIN network. Participants from various parts of the world presented insights on governance and innovation in their countries. The chief speaker at the conference was Professor Subrata K. Mitra from the Heidelberg University.

Professor Mitra spoke about some “essentially contested concepts”. According to him an essentially contested concept is that “which cannot be directly measured and on which there is no consensus”.

Sahoo and Subrata Mitra BARD

According to Professor Mitra, governance means “rules, rule-abiding actions, and rules which are made jointly by the powerful and the powerless”. He criticized the concept of “good” governance and advocated for “multilevel” governance. For him, “multilevel governance is not just the Hobbesian state looking from the Westphalian heights with monopoly of legitimate violence but also looking down at all political arena, and wanting to combine the sovereign function of the state with the collaborative function of the state”.

My Workplace


Humboldtians Meeting the Bundespräsident der Bundesrepublik Deutschland