There's progress to appreciate in today's India. In Panchgani, Maharashtra, for instance, where I am typing this, quantities of rubbish dropped late in the night by large throngs of holidaying visitors are removed and bagged in the following morning's early hours, ready to be taken for suitable disposal to what used to be called Kachra Point and is now known as Swachh Bharat Point. Activists, residents, and people's representatives in the Panchgani Municipality have brought about the pleasing change.
Such instances can fortunately be multiplied. However, progress of this sort in public services has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the confidence felt by India's minorities. Striding forward as the new G20 Chair, Prime Minister Modi holds aloft an impressive new banner: One Earth, One Family, One Future. Nonetheless, the notion of India as a family is taking a beating. India cannot be seen as a family if the dignity of some sections is regularly assaulted.
Every day seems to bring fresh attempts to lower the standing of India's Muslims or Christians or both. One of the latest is a plea by the Gujarat government that the Supreme Court should tighten the working of laws against forced or bribed conversion by requiring every convert to first obtain a certificate from a government officer that his or her conversion is genuine.
The unstated but unmistakable insinuation accompanying this request is that Christian and Muslim activists in India are luring or compelling large numbers of Hindus to give up their faith and accept Christianity or Islam. Are they? Several states, including Gujarat, have for decades retained laws that severely punish forced or lured conversion. In response to the Gujarat state's latest request, the Supreme Court ought to ask for information on the number of cases of forced or fraudulent conversion prosecuted by the state government in, say, the last ten years. And for information also on the number of such cases brought to the attention of the Gujarat government by citizens troubled by questionable conversions. For the reality is that alarmist talk of conversion is almost never accompanied by facts.
Even if they wished to, how many Christians and Muslims would be trying, in India's current atmosphere of majoritarian pressure, to gain converts through fraud or force? If some are indeed trying to do so, the rest of us should be informed. If no evidence of such attempts is produced, then the cry being raised will be seen for what it is: another bid to frighten the minorities, and also to demonize them in the eyes of the majority.
Moreover, this fresh push for punishing supposed stratagems for conversion carries with it a threat to every Indian, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, whatever. If today a citizen is barred from expressing a new religious belief unless the government certifies its genuineness, tomorrow the same hurdle can be demanded for any new political belief. "You cannot change your political preference or affiliation," it will be said, "without a government officer certifying that your change is sincere."
Whether in politics, religion, art or science, a demand that a government officer must certify your sincerity is the antithesis of an individual's right to heed his or her conscience. It is oppressive, apart from being anti-democratic - and a fresh avenue for corruption.
In the ongoing Supreme Court discussions on the question, an honourable Justice seems to have said: "If you believe that particular persons should be helped, help them but it can't be for conversion. Allurement is very dangerous. It is a very serious issue and is against the basic structure of our constitution. "Everyone who stays in India will have to act as per the culture of India," the bench seems to have added, according to the journal LiveLaw.
According to an Indian Express report, the court further said: "The purpose of charity should not be conversion; every charity or good work is welcome, but what is required to be considered is the intention."
The Supreme Court stands on incontestable ground when it says that while assistance or support is welcome, it shouldn't be offered with the intention or design of conversion. No one can disagree with that. But I must respectfully question the apparent position that those who live in India "will have to act as per the culture of India".
Apart from the fact that the phrase "the culture of India" does not mean the same thing to every Indian, our Constitution does not demand conformity to "the culture of India". Spelling out Fundamental Duties, Article 51A does ask citizens to "value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture", which seems to be very different from demanding behaviour "as per the culture of India".
If a threatening crowd demands that a Christian or a Muslim must raise a particular slogan or make a particular gesture in line with "the culture of India", but the said Christian or Muslim is unwilling to obey, our Constitution would require the police to protect the dissenting citizen.
And one hopes that the police in the U.S. or Canada would defend any Hindu visitor or Hindu citizen who is unwilling to obey the diktats of a mob demanding performance in line with the supposed "Christian" culture of that country.
One Earth, One Family, One Future is a fine vision that Mr. Modi has articulated. In order to help humanity move in that direction, all of us including Mr. Modi have to work to turn the Indian people into one family of mutual trust, mutual goodwill, and mutual respect.
(Rajmohan Gandhi's latest book is "India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections")
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.