Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India, written by Sarbeswar Sahoo

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
V. V. Thomas United Theological College, Bangalore, India

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(New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. xviii-205, isbn: 9781108416122 (Hard Cover).

This is an ethnographic study of the politics of conversion among the Bhil tribes of southern Rajasthan in India. Sarbeswar Sahoo unpacks the complex interactions between religions, cultures, gender, and institutions. The author, though not a Pentecostal himself, has objectively dissected the roles of cultural diversities, complexities of cultural identities, and the politicization of identities made by Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists to convert the natives.

On the opening page, Sahoo’s explanation of both the physical and intersubjective dimensions of violence by exploring the concept of “Isness” underlines the narration of why the Bhil tribals increasingly convert to Pentecostalism. The author unfolds painstakingly how conversion and the rise of anti-Christian violence have exacerbated the Christian phobia both within and outside the tribal communities. He also portrays the strand of denominational schisma visible through the veneer of ecumenical respectability, despite the dialogical approaches among the Christian denominations in India. The introductory part is punctuated with three high complexities such as caste identity vs equality; free will vs force and inducement; and the question of continuity vs rupture. Little has been discussed in the book on the Hindu nationalists’ charges against Christianity such as the allurement in mission-strategies and the presence of ‘caste in Christianity’. The author also has not explained the theological aspects of Pentecostalism in the light of conversions, though there is an explanation on the subjective experiences of ‘ordinary theology.’

In the second chapter, despite the extended ethnographic fieldwork among the Bhil Tribes the author had undertaken since 2006, he is able to include only a few subjective experiences (such of Pr. Manohar Kala), which seems to be quite inadequate to substantiate the implications of ‘conversion’, ‘evangelism’, ‘Spiritual Needs’ in light of issues of secularism, religious freedom and democratic rights. The popularity of Pentecostalism (and Christianity in general) among the Bhils, in Sahoo’s view, is due to its association with the west. Further, he notes that Pentecostals have also brought several social reforms in education, child marriages, tribal morality, and have instilled abstinence from alcohol among the Bhil-converts.

The third chapter discusses the various narratives of conversion in India, such as the Pentecostal missionary narrative, the Hindu nationalist narrative, the convert’s narrative and the tribal narrative. The book critically engages with the literature on conversion that includes expressions like ‘brain washing’, ‘mind control’ ‘the psyche of individual’, and ‘social influence’. His statements on the social reform among the Pentecostals contradict his explanation for the reason for conversion: “Many Adivasis also get converted because of money or material support”. The author’s frame of reference does not seem to take into account the quintessential Pentecostal convictions such as the works of the Spirit, faith, role of scripture, and so on. Besides, the author’s four narratives seem to be one-sided, and not interconnected.

The fourth chapter entitled ‘Adivasi Women and the Pentecostal Church’ resumes the materialist hypothesis for conversion, and it does not appear to connect with the authentic behavioural changes as witnessed by the author among the Bhils. However, the emancipation of Bhil tribal women (such as that of Sima Bai, Binni Bai, Poorvi Bai, Ratu Bai) is acknowledged by the author as one of the transformations effected with the advent of Pentecostalism. The tribal women gained freedom, equality, employment, and leadership – opportunities to play a greater role in their community.

The fifth chapter covers many anti-Christian incidents of violence including the ones in Gujarat, and in Kandhamal district of Odisha. The divide and rule policy of the British is still alive in Indian politics causing communal conflicts. However, the author has not gone into the complexities of caste and its divisive role. The socio-economic factors like illiteracy, short life expectancy, and infant mortality have together caused backwardness among Bhil tribes, and have rendered them powerless economically and politically. Although colonialism is against Indian national identity, the Bhils, however, remember with gratitude the mediation of modernity and education among them, thanks to the colonial impact and Pentecostalism.

The author has done well by examining and highlighting the spirit of Pentecostalism by deconstructing Indian Christianity and distinguishing and evaluating the role played by ‘mainline’ churches and the Pentecostals. He has clearly analysed the cultural diversities and contradictions within Christianity. Moreover, he has gone into the complexity of cultural identity of the Bhil tribes and its politicization by both missionaries and Hindu nationalists through their competing projects of conversion. This book is well written and will be valuable to both generalists and readers with a particular interest in Christian missions.

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