Religious Conversion and Anti-Conversion Laws in India

Religious conversions whether as a matter of free choice or forcible, have been part of history of India. As a matter of free choice, we have great examples ancient kings like Asoka, Chandragupta, Harsha etc. who adopted faiths of their choice. The forcible conversions in recorded history of ancient India are scant but accelerated with invasion of Islamic adventurers. The entire period of Sultanates and Mughals saw mass conversions of Hindus and other faiths into Muslims. During British era, the forced conversion to Christianity started and was somewhat state sponsored.

Anti-conversion Laws

During the British Era, few princely states had enacted the anti-conversion laws such as Udaipur State Conversion Act, 1946 and Raigarh State Conversion Act of 1936. In 1954 Congress government in Madhya Pradesh had set up Niyogi Committee {under Justice Bhawani Shankar Niyogi} to recommend ways to deal with forced conversions. This committee found that the religious conversion by inducement was in vogue. This committee found that Christian missionaries were using philanthropic activities as mask for conversions. Schools and hospitals were being used as means of securing converts. A practice by the Roman Catholic priests visiting newborn babies to give ‘ashish’ was used along with other inducements such as 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.

States to Pass Anti-conversion laws

The first state to bring a law barring forceful conversion was Odisha which passed Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. This law was followed by similar acts by Madhya Pradesh in 1968 and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. These laws were protested by Catholics which said that propagation of their faith was an important part of their religion.  Chhattisgarh inherited the law from Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat enacted law in 2003 prohibiting forced or money induced conversions. In July 2006, the Madhya Pradesh government passed legislation requiring people who desire to convert to a different religion to provide the government with one month’s notice, or face fines and penalties. In August 2006, the Chhattisgarh State Assembly passed similar legislation requiring anyone who desires to convert to another religion to give 30 days’ notice to, and seek permission from, the district magistrate. In 2006, Rajasthan state assembly passed such law and in February 2007, Himachal Pradesh adopted legislation banning illegal religious conversion. The current status of such laws is as follows:

  • Odisha: Passed Odisha Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 and became first state to pass such law. This law was declared unconstitutional in 1977 but then Supreme Court restored the act.
  • Madhya Pradesh: Passed the law in 1968. The law was amended in 2013, making prior permission of administration compulsory and harsher punishments / jail terms for forceful conversions.
  • Arunachal Pradesh: Passed the law in 1978 to prevent religious conversions of local tribes through inducement. However, this law is yet to be implemented.
  • Chhattisgarh: The state inherited the law from Madhya Pradesh in 2000 and amended in 2006 to make prior permission of DM for conversion.
  • Tamil Nadu: The AIDMK government in Tamil Nadu passed the law in 2002 but repealed it in 2006.
  • Gujarat 2003: Gujarat became first state in 2003 to make prior permission from DM necessary to validate the conversion.
  • Rajasthan: The assembly passed law in 2008 but then governor declined to give assent. Currently, the bill is pending with president.
  • Himachal Pradesh: The state passed law in 2007.

Currently, the law is proposed in Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.

Challenge in Court and Supreme Court interpretation

The Odisha and Madhya Pradesh laws were challenged in Supreme Court on the ground of violation of Article 25 {Stanislaus Vs Govt. of Madhya Pradesh case}. An interpretation of Article 25 was needed to decide the case. Article 25 guarantees the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate one’s religion. There are two different versions of interpretations of this provision as follows:

  • Article 25 guarantees freedom of conscience to every citizen not merely to followers of a particular religion, which means there is no fundamental right to convert other person to one’s own religion because, if a person purposefully understates the conversion of another person it would impinge the freedom of conscience guaranteed to all citizens.
  • The opposite interpretation is – if a person’s right to propagate his religion does not include its right to freedom of speech aimed at seeking conversion, would not such right is illusory? To propagate religion not only to impart knowledge, but to produce intellectual and moral conviction, leading to action and the adoption of that religion. In doing so he/she in fact is exercising the general right to freedom of conscience.

The laws which followed the Stainslaus judgment, the Madhya Pradesh and Orissa and similar legislation enacted in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have been used by government to target conversion to minority religions in particular, upsetting thereby even the most basic commitment to secularism. SC also after series of rulings in cases concerning to the reconversion to Hinduism says – one has the right to convert to any religion or even to reconvert to one’s religion. Any legislation or governmental action, promote the increased involvement in the matters of freedom of conscience that involve a pure ethical choice.

However, Supreme Court did not strike down these laws. The Supreme Court said that what is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion“. Supreme Court verdict was criticized because constitution did not make difference between forced conversion and conversion by persuasion.

The Recent Jharkhand Law

Jharkhand is home to almost 90 percent of the tribal population of the country and it is claimed / reported that the Christian missionary activity at its peak in the state. Tribals constitute around 27 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. Among them, 4.3 per cent are Christians; about 13 per cent Sarnas (animistic believers) and the rest are largely Hindu tribals. As per the 2011 census, the Christian population in Jharkhand has risen by very large of 29.7 percent in the last 10 years, followed by that of Muslims at 28.4 percent, while the Hindu population has been the slowest at 21 percent.

It was found that most of the conversions are happening in backward communities of the state by offering money or other benefits.  Therefore, the State assembly has passed the law to prevent large religious conversions taking place in the state.

Key Provisions of the bill
  • The Bill has provision for a fine up to Rs 50,000 and up to 3 years imprisonment or both for those who convert others through force, fraud or allurement.
  • The Bill also has a provision that, any person who is converting willingly must give a notice to the respective district collector with details of time, place and the name of the person administering the conversion at least 15 days in advance.
  • Without this notice, the administration will be free to interpret the conversion as having been done by “force, fraud or allurement”, all of which have been defined in the Act.
  • If the religious conversion involves minor, women are person from ST then the Punishment would by 4 years of imprisonment or Penalty of Rs. 1 Lakh.
Criticism of Jharkhand Bill

Most of the tribal leaders are criticizing the bill by saying that the bill is to break the tribal society and it will drive unnecessary social tension in the state. Also, they are criticizing on the grounds that the bill went against Article 25 of the constitution which grants religious freedom.

Conclusion

As long as religion is a free choice, conversion by free exercise of conscience has to be recognized. The fact that secularism was opposed in the form of what is now called ‘negative secularism’, where no religion is considered to be worthy of respect should not make us forget that many constitution makers clearly advocating the positive secularism which respects all religion equally.

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