Legislation is not always the best way to resolve a social problem with a contentious history of a thousand years, but governments are not always in control of events. Sometimes, events control governments. The Agra incident, where some fringe hardliners sought to "reconvert" a handful of Muslims, surviving under many forms of pressure including poverty and immigration, brought to the surface a simmering undercurrent of community relations.
The Union government's response has been straight, forthright and devoid of fudge. It has tackled the problem at source, and asked all parties to cooperate in passing a law that bans forced conversions. The operative word is "forced". There should be no problem with this, either in legality or morality. No faith permits this. The Quran, for instance, is very clear. Surah 2 Verse 256 says, categorically and unambiguously, "Let there be no compulsion in religion". In his authoritative translation, Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains, "Compulsion is incompatible with religion because religion depends upon faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force..." If force was used in the past, it was wrong, and in any case it can have no place in a democratic society and polity. Neither does force have any legitimacy in the liberal embrace of Hindu doctrine and philosophy.
It can be argued that such a law needs the support of institutions other than Parliament. The government should enlarge the ambit of discourse to solicit intelligent opinion from religious leaders with credibility, and complete this process within a specified time limit. We will know then who stands where. But the final responsibility for legislation rests with Parliament, and political parties represented within it.
It is surprising therefore that the parties most vociferous in protest, initiated by Congress and its patriarch Mrs Sonia Gandhi, have been relatively muted in their response to the idea. Such an anti-conversion law would make any future Agra-style episode a straight criminal offence. It would check conversions through inducement by any faith, whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. One assumes this was an objective of parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party, the various Janata Dals and the Marxists. In fact, with their scepticism about religion, Marxists might have been expected to support the government idea immediately. Instead, there has been implicit pushback. Why?
The principal voices in government, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have made it as clear as language will permit that the job of an elected government is good governance, and not encouragement of any form of religiosity. The party president, Amit Shah, stressed this firmly at a public discussion hosted by a television channel on Friday. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said this to anyone who will listen. Today's India wants, and demands, a route map towards prosperity, not the politics of emotionalism and discord. Common sense suggests that prosperity cannot come without peace, and peace begins at home. Every public apparatus comes with its own form of excess baggage, but baggage should not become an obstacle to the journey. Where does our present Union government want to go? What is its horizon? Where does it want to be by 2019, when it will have to ask for a fresh mandate? There is no confusion about the answer. The Prime Minister said in his very first speech in the Lok Sabha that if government was not for the welfare of the poor then what was it for? The last general election was won on a simple message: development for all. For all. This includes minorities. The Prime Minister said repeatedly that he wants Indian Muslims to hold a Quran in one hand and a computer in the other. No part of the central message has been altered by an iota. Those who dilute or confuse this message are not doing a focused Prime Minister any favours. Lost in the extraneous din has been the fact that the government has been able to reset the compass on reform in this session of the House. The change in insurance regulations should be sufficient as a hint to sceptics; the coal bill has been passed despite the usual noises from the Left that this upturns nationalisation. A final holdout from Mamata Banerjee's Bengal is the last hitch in GST, but this too shall be resolved by the monsoon session. The Bengal Chief Minister's worry is not the nation, or its economy, but the fact that CBI has been able to link the Saradha scam to her transport minister, Madan Mitra, who is very close to his chief. Unfortunately, she thinks that a scream is sufficient as an answer, but the voter is wiser than that. Religion, ideally, should be a matter restricted to one's private life. In public life there is one book, the Constitution. In politics, there is one duty: the greater good of the people.