Freedom of Religion in Indian Constitution and Issue of Conversion
In India, religious conversion is a thousand year old phenomenon. The forced conversion started with the invasion of Islamic adventurers, when Hindus were forcibly converted to Muslims. The Qaimkhani Muslims are such clan which was Hindu Rajputs 600 years ago.
During the British Era, the forced conversion into the Christian belief started and was somewhat protected by the governance. Before India’s independence, Udaipur State Conversion Act of 1946 along with Raigarh State Conversion Act of 1936 were some acts by the princely states which tried to make the forced conversion unlawful.
In this context, In 1954 Congress government in Madhya Pradesh set up Niyogi Committee. This committee was chaired by Justice Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, a retired Chief Justice of the Nagpur High Court. This committee submitted its report in 1956. The Committee was set up in response to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s protest movement, “The Anti-Foreign Missionary Week“.
This committee found that “schools and hospitals were being used as means of securing converts.”Reference was also made to the practice of the Roman Catholic priests or preachers visiting newborn babies to give ‘ashish’ (blessings) in the name of Jesus, taking sides in litigation or domestic quarrels, kidnapping of minor children and abduction of women and recruitment of labour for plantations in Assam or Andaman as a means of propagating the Christian faith among the ignorant and illiterate people”
The Congress government of Madhya Pradesh as well as Sangh Parivar alleged that Christian missionaries were creating ‘a state within a state’ and observed that the ‘philanthropic activities of Christian missionaries are a mask for conversions.
Consequently, in 1968, the Madhya Pradesh Government passed “The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1968”.
This act required an affidavit from the convert that he was not under pressure, force or allurement.
In the same year, the Orissa state government passed “The Orissa Freedom of Religions Act of 1968” This act mandates that
“No person shall convert or attempt to convert either directly or otherwise any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion”
Both the above acts penalized the forced conversion. The move was later followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and lately Rajasthan. The Government of Rajasthan has its own act which was passed in 2008.
Seven of 28 states in India have passed anti-conversion laws viz. Gujarat, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh & Rajasthan.
Issue of Conversion in Supreme Court:
The act passed by the Madhya Pradesh Government was challenged in the Supreme Court. The landmark case was Stanislaus versus the State of Madhya Pradesh. It was pleaded before the Supreme Court that the right to propagate includes the right to convert. However, it was rejected by the Supreme Court and honorable apex court mandated that forced conversions enjoy no protection under the provisions of Article 25. Similar pleas were admitted to Supreme Court in case of Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat and subsequently the pleas were rejected.