Merry Christmas, Rev. Khanna: Thinking about Freedom and Intolerance in Kashmir
I want to begin writing this by wishing a very happy Christmas to Reverend C.M. Khanna, a Protestant presbyter in the All Saint’s Church, Srinagar, Indian held Jammu & Kashmir, who has been facing a situation that no free man should ever have to countenance. He has had to face an arrest (though, thankfully now he is out on bail) and social ostracism for doing nothing that can be construed as criminal or harmful to any individual or society at large. I write this in solidarity with him and his family, and with all those who have been harassed for their faith, or for their lack of faith, anywhere.
(Please follow this link for a comprehensive report on Rev. Khanna’s situation, in the form of a press note submitted by John Dayal)
I know that many people in Kashmir continue to be in prison for reasons of conscience, because they want to be free of the occupation. And this Christmas, my greetings are to them and to their families too. I know that Reverend Khanna is out on bail now, and that many others are not. And I hope that they too will see freedom soon. I am writing about Reverend Khanna not because I value his freedom more than that of others incarcerated in Kashmir, but because if we value freedom, we should not have to measure its value, or calculate its worth depending on who happens to get bail, and who happens to rot in jail.
It is incidental that Rev. Khanna happens to be a Christian pastor in Kashmir, he might just as well have been a Muslim Imam in a small town in one of the southern states of the United States of America, a certain kind of Buddhist monk in China, a Jewish Rabbi in Saudi Arabia, a practicing Hindu in Pakistan or an Atheist in Iran. No person, anywhere in the world, should be persecuted or harassed or socially boycotted for their beliefs, their faith or lack of them, or for trying to convince others to join them in their faith or share in celebrating their doubt. States and societies that deny people this basic right, the freedom to articulate and communicate their convictions, cannot be considered to be ‘free’ in any way.
There is no denying that a part of Kashmir is in the grip of a brutal occupation by the armed forces of the Indian State. Kashmir is not free. There is no denying that a plebiscite under international auspices to determine what shape the people of Kashmir want to give to their sovereignty may well be the only way out of the violence and brutal force that reigns over Kashmir. My views on this matter are public knowledge, and have been freely expressed, both in this blog and in other fora.
Today, I want to ask a serious question about the nature of the ‘Azadi’ that the self-proclaimed leaders of the Kashmiri people are demanding. I do not mean to demean or cheapen this demand, which I consider to be just and morally correct. I only want to know whether or not, many of those who voice this demand in Kashmir do so after due consideration to what ‘freedom’ actually entails, or whether they are just automatically mouthing a demand whose depth they have no intention of plumbing. If the latter is the case, then the ‘Azadi’ they will bring to bear on Kashmir will not be substantially different from the ‘Barbadi’ (devastation) that is currently taking place there under the auspices of the Indian state.
If the ‘Azadi’ has to be ‘pyaari-pyaari, meethi-meethi (beloved and sweet)’ as the passionate voices of crowds in Kashmir so often declare, then, it has to mean the freedom to uphold the dictates of one’s faith and conscience, without fear, regardless of what name one gives to one’s faith or lack of it. Without the freedom to believe or disbelieve as one chooses to, according to one’s conscience, there cannot be a substantive or real ‘Azaadi’. It may be an ‘Azaadi-baraye-Islam’ (an Azaadi for Islam) but that is not Azaadi. Azaadi Baraye Islam in a Muslim Majority province means the same thing as freedom for Hindus in a Hindu majority territory. This is freedom with qualifiers, and freedom with qualifiers is really, not freedom at all.
I say this in relation to the recent troubles that have plagued Reverend Chander Mani Khanna, whom I referred to at the beginning of this post. The facts are common knowledge by now. Reverend Khanna, who has been living in Srinagar for quite some time, has been serving the small Christian community in Kashmir. Some time ago, some local people, who had been regularly attending his services, asked him to baptize them into the Christian religion. He was initially reluctant to do so, and only after satisfying himself that they were not asking to be baptized for any material benefit, he conducted the relevant ceremony, not in hiding, but in public, so that no ulterior motives may be attributed to him.
Subsequent to this, he was first summoned before a ‘Sharia Court’ by an individual – a Bashiruddin Ahmed – who is acknowledged to be the ‘Mufti-Azam’ of Jammu and Kashmir by the state government and thus cannot be regarded as anything but a well known (if occasionally double dealing) lackey of the Indian occupation of Kashmir. This individual reprimanded severely Rev. Khanna, though he had no legal authority to do so, (as the ‘Sharia Court’ has no legal or constitutional basis) and then legal notices were served on him by the official judicial system. Since Jammu and Kashmir, unlike some other states in the Indian Union does not (thankfully) have a draconian ‘anti conversion law’ on its statute books, Rev. Khanna was arrested under sections of the Ranbir Penal Code to do with disrupting communal harmony and causing disaffection. Reportedly, no lawyer in Kashmir agreed to appear on his behalf. He was heckled in court, and threatened as he was finally released on bail in early December.
Let us remember that this was an action undertaken by the very regime that the ‘separatist’ leaders of Jammu and Kashmir oppose tooth and nail.Yet in this instance, they (the separatist leadership) seemed to have experienced no trouble at all in either remaining indifferent to the plight of Rev. Khanna, acting ambivalently at best, or in actually actively supporting the hated state’s draconian action. So a state that you say you hate is fine as long as it persecutes people who are inconvenient to you. This attitude should make it clear that several of the loudest voices in favor of ‘Azadi’ in Jammu & Kashmir have no real commitment to the idea of freedom and the ethical responsibility that it entails. A case like this is a test. And we should treat it as one. If someone responds to it with prevarication, ambivalence or in support of persecution, then they cannot be trusted to respect freedom. Today they have looked away, or cheered, as a Christian Pastor is pilloried, tomorrow, they will do it to Pandits, or Shias, or Buddhists, or Atheists, or people who have a different idea of how the state or society should be administered.
I am not a believer, and if I met Rev. Khanna, I would politely and respectfully offer him my fundamental disagreements with the tenets of his faith. But that does not mean that I do not respect his right to communicate what he perceives to be his faith to me. If I found his arguments and his passion persuasive, I may even agree to join his faith, as I would if I were convinced by the tenets of Islam, Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism or any other religious world view. So far I have not had this good fortune. My doubts stay, and I remain, an unbeliever, keenly interested in all religions and beliefs, but content to hold my own ground in terms of doubt.
The opposition to Rev. Khanna’s actions centre on the fact that a video of the conversion ceremony has the ‘baptized’ declaring that they enter a new life in the Christian faith, renouncing the works of the devil. This has been taken to mean that the baptized are saying that their previous faith (in this case, Islam) is the ‘work of the devil’. While I carry no brief for proselytizers of any sort, I do recognize that several religions, especially Christianity and Islam, do attribute deviation from their core beliefs to be inspired by the power which is not what they consider to be God. And there can be no ambiguity about the fact that this power, happens to be the devil. Thus, it is a bit specious for a believing Muslim to be offended by a Christian baptism ceremony invoking a renunciation of the devil, especially when the core beliefs and practices of non-Muslims (say in icon-worship, or the ‘divinity’ of Jesus Christ) would equally qualify as the ‘devil’s work’ for a Musllim proselytizer or ‘defender-of-the-faith’.
The other objection has been to the possibility of monetary or material incentives for conversion. Reverend Khanna flatly denies that he offered any material incentives to those who chose to convert. He in fact says that he repeatedly asked them to reconsider their desire, and took the step to baptize them only after he was convinced that the individuals concerned had no material motives.
I take Reverend Khanna at his word, but let us for argument’s sake, consider the circumstances of conversion for material gain.
I have no hesitation in saying that if a religiously committed individual were to offer material inducements to people to convert, I would see nothing wrong with that either. After all, many religions promise ‘their’ believers a ‘better life’ in heaven – their visions of paradise are all ‘milk and honey’.
What difference does it make if one gets a little ‘milk and honey’ in this life along with the next one ? Let us assume, hypothetically, that a person did offer material rewards. What wrong would that do? And why are we assuming that a little ‘milk and honey’ in this life, especially if one is poor and desperate, are things to be looked down upon? What gives anyone the right to look down upon an appreciation of material rewards in this life, it those rewards rob no one else of their rights, and are not wrested by violence? The only conditions under which conversion can be said to be ‘wrong’ in my view, is if it is obtained under duress and threat of violence. No one faith has monopoly over a history of coercion and violence. And in all instances, it is wrong.
It has been said, by some, that Rev. Khanna represents a ‘foreign funded’ initiative. Again, this is probably not true. But what if it were? Who is to say that the many well endowed Saudi petrodollar backed Salafi initiatives that are active in Kashmir, that are intent on turning people in Kashmir away from the kind of Islam that they have known for generations towards another kind of Islam, are not equally ‘foreign-funded’. Why cherry pick one’s ‘foreign funded’ agencies when it comes to proselytization ?
Finally, we come to the most substantive point of all. The vast majority of Muslims in Kashmir are descended from people who converted freely, and of their own volition to the Islamic faith at some point or the other in the past. If we can respect the agency and freedom of these ancestors of today’s Kashmiris to choose their own faith, why should we not extend the same respect to today’s Kashmiris when it comes to the choices that they want to make to remain within Islam or to choose another faith, or to choose no faith at all. Only if this basic respect is guaranteed will the slogan of ‘Azadi’ carry any meaning. Otherwise, it will be just as hollow as the claim that ‘Kashmiris are as free as they can be within the Indian Union’.
All those who stand for ‘Azadi’ in Kashmir, if their love for freedom is genuine, will, I hope, stand in solidarity with Reverend Khanna and his family this Christmas. I say all this because I hope that one day the occupation of Kashmir will end, and that all those who stay in Kashmir, including Reverend Khanna, or some one like him, will live as free men and women.