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Chandra S. Mallampalli


Protest and Conversion

Is conversion more about this world than the next?

We in the West have come to think of religious conversion as a deeply personal experience, bearing little or no relation to social structures and institutions. Stories of how people "come to faith" have more to do with "meeting God," deliverance from sin, or personal healing than they do with law or politics. Gauri Viswanathan's Outside the Fold compels us to consider religious conversion as a "worldly" event, which functions as a mode of social protest and challenges the very identity of a nation. Viswanathan does this by comparing and contrasting the significance of conversion within nineteenth-century England and India. The themes of this book speak not only to issues of religion and the public sphere here in the United States, but also to the heated debate being waged in India today over Christian evangelism.

Reader be warned: The book rides the currents of post-structuralist literary theory, in which the meaning of a given "sign" is not inherent, but consists only in its difference from something else in a system of signs (x is "not y"). Viswanathan uses this framework to overturn conventional wisdom about religious conversion. Her counterintuitive thesis is that the real meaning of conversion has little to do with assent to a set of beliefs or assimilation into a given community. Conversion's meaning lies in stead in the dissent or protest it voices against systems of authority, including the secular nation.

Viswanathan develops her argument by linking two seemingly unrelated developments: legislation in England (e.g., the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1828) that endowed religious minorities with national "citizenship," and educational policies in India that Anglicized Indians in order to incorporate them into the imperial regime. Each of these developments, according to Viswanathan, belongs to the single, colonizing project of secular nationhood. And in each context, religious conversion becomes a mode of protest against the very organs of the state that purport ...

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