History Hour 66 – “Conversion and Liminality: Interrogations from the Margins” by Fr. Rudolf C. Heredia S.J. held on Thursday, 30th June 2011.

The speaker “interrogated from the margins” the three protagonists in religious conversion – promoters, opposers and would-be converts – to provide a critical starting point to rethink religious conversions. Given the emotional charge it usually carries, the discussion on religious conversion is frequently fragmented and unfocused.

In attempting a holistic approach, the speaker analysed four levels of discourse: the psycho-social, the socio-cultural, the eco-political and the socio-religious. He also highlighted the personal pilgrimages of Babashaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi which represent paradigmatic counterpoints: of religious conversion as a dharmantar and as atmaparivartan. The collective journeys of dalits and tribals (Scheduled Castes and Tribes) that emphasise different aspects of the quest for identity and dignity was also looked into.

There is a range of responses to religious conversion, from those opposing it as subversion to others promoting it as liberation. The speaker suggested a rethink: conversion as process, not event; as tolerance at multiple levels; as dialogue in many domains. Our challenge today in our world of religious extremism and fundamentalism is a ‘religious disarmament’. It is to engage not in a “Clash of Civilisations” but in a dialogue of cultures.

Fr. Rudolf C. Heredia is an independent researcher residing at Campion School, Mumbai. His doctorate in Sociology is from the University of Chicago (1979), and he was the founder director of the Social Science Centre, St. Xavier’s College Mumbai, 1980-1992 and director again from 1994-2003. From 1992-94 he was director, department of research, at the Indian Social Institute and edited the institute’s journal, Social Action, 1993-95. He has several publications to his name of which the latest is Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India, Penguin, N. Delhi, 2007. He has also published in various journals such as the Economic and Political Weekly, Contributions to Indian Sociology, New Frontiers in Education, etc.

Dr. Rudolf Heredia S.J.

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