What is the politics of religious freedom? For the past decade and more, those who would like to see the active promotion of religious freedom at the “core” of foreign policy in the U.S. and now in Canada would have us understand that religious freedom is the foundation of democracy, the basis for political stability and first step to all other freedoms. The mission statement of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State links its promotion of religious freedom to human rights and to political “stability” for “all countries.” Referring to the establishment of a new Office of Religious Freedom within his government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in a statement to the United Nations last year, the Canadian UN Ambassador declared, “History has shown us that where religious freedom is strong, democratic freedom is strong.”

These are strong claims with powerful appeal. In India too, national narratives would trace today’s secular democracy to the foundational moment when religious freedom—taken in a broad sense, at least—was established as a political ideal. Many regard Indian secularism to be deeply rooted in an ideal of equal respect for all religions. The annual reports issued by the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom over the past several years credit the Indian achievement by noting that the constitution protects religious freedom. But they also observe that laws at the state level have restricted this freedom. The 2010 Report cites legislation restricting religious proselytizing, which it describes as “‘anticonversion’ laws,” but which are properly known as Freedom of Religion acts.

The Report’s choice of nomenclature glosses over an important debate about the meaning of religious freedom in India. Many critical observers of Indian debates over conversion argue that to interpret religious freedom to include a right to proselytize, as is normative in American foreign policy and human rights law, is to impose “a Western conception of religion and religious freedom on the rest of the world.” They argue that religious freedom so construed favors “proselytizing religions,” like Christianity, over “non-proselytizing religion,” which is more typical to India.

I will not dwell on this line of argument here except to note that it has a long and respectable pedigree. Far from confined to the Hindu Right, it is integral to a prominent tradition of Indian secularist thought: the Gandhian tradition, first articulated during the 1920s. This explains the fact, also glossed over in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that many “progressive” Indians support restrictions on proselytizing. In an important sense, the Indian secularist imagination took shape as an intervention in the politics of religious freedom.

What is the politics of religious freedom? As others in this series have remarked, the question hinges on what we take religion to be. Critical reflection has called into question whether it is possible to produce a sufficiently neutral definition of religion to allow religious freedom to be administered to all persons equally. But this is more than a question of majority bias—important as this question is, more is at stake than whether religious freedom is interpreted in such a way as to privilege Christians over Hindus, or Hindus over Christian and Muslim minorities. We must ask what is foregrounded when we speak of religion and what forms of politics our talk of religion might exclude. This is particularly true when we consider the politics of religious freedom outside Europe and North America.

The International Religious Freedom Reports on India only hint at this larger story. Untouchability is illegal in India, but members of the Scheduled Castes or Dalits—castes formerly referred to as “untouchable”—continue to face discrimination and violence regardless of their religious affiliations as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist. Their struggles for equality make their appearance in the State Department reports only briefly, when they involve religious conversion: “some Dalits who sought to convert out of a desire to escape discrimination and violence encountered hostility and backlash from upper castes.” But Dalits are subject to discrimination, even by their co-religionists, regardless of whether they are Hindu, Christian, or Muslim. A mere change of religious affiliation does not bring escape from caste-based discrimination. So just what kinds of practice are we talking about, using this imprecise language of “religious conversion”? What forms of political practice does our attention to religious freedom conceal?

I want to draw attention to the different forms of political struggle that have come to be sheltered under the language of religious freedom in India, but that are also obscured by it. By considering the Indian case from the vantage point of caste, I also hope to provoke a rethinking of the truism that religious freedom is the basis for all other freedoms. Critical reflections have taught us that the category religion is neither natural nor universal, but derives from a modern, European history. The history of religious freedom in India is therefore a history of (partial, incomplete) translations. I cannot do justice to this complex history in this brief post (see more in my contribution to this volume). Instead my aim is to highlight the problem of translation.

From the eighteenth century through the twentieth, the category of religion organized the colonial policy of the British government in India. It informed the colonial policy of religious toleration, and it informed the practice of extending political representation to Indians as members of communities. Indian political elites learned to speak this language of religion, and to invoke their right to religious freedom against the intrusions of the colonial state.

But in India the English-language discourse of religion was specific to the civic arena of colonial politics. Scholars have often remarked upon the divided or “bilingual” quality to colonial politics: the civic arena, which was organized by a quasi-liberal political idiom, was confined to a relatively small circle of social actors—the English-educated elites—particularly when they addressed their British rulers. Outside this narrow arena, political effort in colonial India was organized by vernacular idioms that reached deeper into Indian society and drew upon a longer history on the subcontinent. Scholars often resort to using a religious vocabulary to describe the vernacular idioms of politics outside the civic arena. But to do so obscures the labor of translation that was required when Indian actors represented their political struggles before the state.

Beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century, those judged to belong to low or “untouchable” castes took part in what I refer to as “ritual-political” struggles for dignity, respectability, and equality of treatment with (Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu) upper castes. Ritual-politics targeted the “meticulous rituals of power” that constituted certain caste groups as subordinate. Low castes were prevented from adopting the dress or ceremonial of superior castes, were required to show prescribed forms of deference in their postures and their forms of greeting, and were often excluded from equal access to common spaces. In the ritual-political initiatives of the low castes, these distinctions were loci of resistance, together with restriction from use of common wells and vessels, exclusion from common schools or education, debarment from owning land, forced obligations to perform demeaning tasks, and unpaid labor.

Some of these ritual-political initiatives—I have in mind the shuddhi activities associated with the Hindu reform organization, the Arya Samaj—came to be identified as “religious conversion” and, during the 1920s, became the focus of national debates over religious freedom. For the members of “untouchable” castes who actively pursued shuddhi into the first half of this decade, shuddhi was important not because of any nominal change of religious identity it brought about, but because of the way it could be made to serve the ritual-political struggle against caste oppression. But in the 1920s, Indian elites translated this politics of shuddhi into the language of religious freedom: they debated whether religious freedom should protect shuddhi “proselytizing,” or whether “proselytizing” posed an intolerable threat to peaceable relations between (in this case, Hindu and Muslim) religious communities in India. As elites translated shuddhi into the language of religion and religious freedom, the struggle against caste inequality dropped out of sight.

A great deal has changed in the politics of caste and in the politics of “conversion” between the 1920s and today. As this brief history of religious freedom in India suggests, we must ask not only what kinds of politics the active promotion of religious freedom in India might facilitate, but also what forms of politics and modes of collective action it might foreclose.