In this article, Sanghamitra Sengupta discusses Freedom of religion and anti conversion laws in India.
The role of religion in the Indian society cannot be ignored. Religion has an impact on every sphere of an Indian’s life, be it politics or family ties. In India, there is a large diversity found in terms of religious groups, with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and many others finding themselves coexist in the same space. But, as comforting as the thought of unity in diversity sounds, it has its own share of problems. India has witnessed numerous forced religious conversions in the past and is in fact, still witnessing many. These conversions go against the tenets of basic human rights and should not be tolerated in a civilized democratic state.
Anti-conversion laws during colonial rule
Anti-conversion laws gained popularity in colonial India due to the influx of British Christian missionaries. In order to keep Hindu culture intact, efforts were made to explain to people the ill practice of forceful religious conversion. Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act, 1946 and Raigarh State Anti Conversion Act, 1936, are examples of legislation enacted by princely states to counter conversion. On the other hand, British India had no anti-conversion laws.
Post-colonial scenario regarding anti-conversion laws
- It wasn’t easy for the parliament to collectively agree on a legislation dealing with anti-conversion, which would be applicable to all Indians. Numerous bills were introduced in the parliament post independence but none were concluded to be codified laws.
- Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced in 1954 which required individuals to register with government officials before converting to another religion. Members of the Lok Sabha rejected this bill but introduction of bills didn’t end here.
- Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill was introduced in 1960 but the motive of this bill was slightly different. This bill sought to introduce a law that would check conversion of Hindus to “non-Indian” religions. The bill defined Non-Indian religions as Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
- Freedom of Religion Bill was introduced in 1979 to allow official curb of inter-religious conversion.
- None of the above mentioned bills were passed due to lack of parliamentary support. The prime reason for rejection of these bills is that India being a secular country and having anti-conversion laws at the same time would contribute to a paradoxical situation.
- States have enacted anti-conversion laws after such laws failed at the union level.
States with laws against religious conversion
There are 6 out of 29 states in India that have enacted legislation to check illegal religious conversions and regulate conversions. They are Arunachal’’ Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Let’s take a look at some of the states and their legislation regarding religious conversion,
- Odisha was the first Indian state to enact an anti-conversion legislation, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act in 1967.
- The purpose of the act is to forbid individuals from using force, inducement or any fraudulent means to convert somebody else’s religion.
- Punishment under the act is an imprisonment term of one year with a fine that may or may not be imposed and can be up to INR 5000. If force is used to convert religion of a minor, woman, individual belonging to SC/ST category, punishment may be increased to imprisonment term of 2 years and a fine of INR 10000.
- The crime of conversion under the act is a cognizable offence and hence an arrest or investigation can be initiated without a warrant or authorization of court.
- Investigation can only be made by an officer not below the rank of an Inspector of Police.
- Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules was introduced in 1989 which rested an obligation on the priest conducting the conversion ceremony. The rules mandate the priest to intimate the time, date, place of ceremony, name and address of the person who is converting, to the District Magistrate (DM), 15 days before the conversion ceremony. A fine of INR 1000 will be imposed on the priest if this is not complied with.
- In 1973, the High Court of Odisha declared that the legislation was unconstitutional. The HC stated that the Act was against Art. 25 (1) of the Indian Constitution. The court also stated that the legislature of Odisha, being a state legislature lacked the competence to legislate on matters of religion, under the seventh schedule of the constitution.
- In the case, Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the decision of the HC was overturned.
- Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act, enacted in 1968, mandates the process of an individual requesting for permission to convert his religion from the state government. Any individual who wishes to convert his religion and does so without seeking the government’s permission will be punished, as per this act.
- The act states that no person shall convert or attempt to convert any person’s religion by the use of force, allurement or fraudulent means. The difference between this legislation and Odisha’s legislation is the usage of the word allurement. Odisha’s act mentions the word inducement instead of allurement.
- There have been instances where the nature of such acts restrict one’s freedom of religion. In 2014, four Dalits were arrested, under this act, because of their act of conversion to Islam. Their motive to escape caste discrimination and independent decision to convert was ignored by the state government.
- Punishment under this Act is the same as that of the Odisha legislation on the same subject.
- Unlike the Odisha HC, the Madhya Pradesh HC upheld the constitutional validity of the act.
- In 2006, there were efforts made by the state to amend the legislation by making it necessary for the priest conducting the conversion ceremony to serve a notice to the DM a month prior to the ceremony. Punishment for violation of this requirement was as harsh as a year of imprisonment and a fine of INR 5000.
- The proposed amendment also sought to mandate the individual converting to present himself before the DM and declare his intent. Noncompliance would attract a fine of INR 1000. The DM was also to serve a notice to the Police Superintendent, for him to investigate the matter and satisfy himself of the conversion.
- The Governor of MP rejected the proposed amendment, saying, it would violate Freedom of Religion, guaranteed by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
- Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 was enacted to prohibit conversions from one religion to another by use of force, allurement, or fraudulent means. The prime ingredient of the act is similar to that of MP and Odisha.
- The punishment imposed on a person forcibly converting another’s religion is however higher in Gujarat. An imprisonment term of 3 years and a monetary fine of INR 50,000 is imposed on the offender.
- In other states such as Odisha and MP, only prior notice to the conversion has to be served to the DM but in the case of Gujarat, a person wanting to convert must seek prior permission from the DM to do so. Gujarat is the only state to impose the necessity of seeking permission before converting one’s religious faith.
- In 2006, an amendment bill was sought to be passed by the BJP state-level government. The bill’s aim was to change the definition of convert so as to allow inter-denomination conversion of the same religion. For this purpose, Jain and Buddhists were taken as a denomination of the Hindu religion, Shia and Sunni were taken as a denomination of Islam and Catholic and Protestant were taken as a denomination of Christianity.
- There were numerous objections raised by the Jain and Buddhist community for being considered as a denomination for the Hindu religion. The amendment was thus considered to be objectionable and returned to the state legislature by the Governor of Gujarat.
- The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 is similar to the other state legislations on the same matter.
- Section 4(1) of the act mandates the person converting to another religion to serve a notice to the District Commissioner 30 days prior to the conversion ceremony. Failure to serve this notice will attract a punishment too.
- The Himachal Pradesh HC struck down Section 4 of the Act, along with Rules 3 and 5 of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Rules, in a landmark decision. Rule 3 was similar to Section 4 and dealt with a prior notice which had to be served to the District Commissioner. Rule 5 dealt with investigation of the conversion if the Inspector was dissatisfied with the conversion.
- The courts held that the provisions were in violation of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
Judiciary’s stand on religious conversion
- Rev Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh
- In this Supreme Court judgment, the judges were faced with the question of whether right to convert is a right included within right to practice and propagate one’s religion. The court clarified that right to propagate only implies persuasion or exposition to one’s religious tenets and not forcibly causing another to convert his religion. The court also delved into the “freedom of conscience” guaranteed by Article 25 under which conversion of another’s religious faith would be objectionable.
- The court also clarified the competency of state governments with regard to anti-conversion laws. The court stated that states have complete jurisdiction regarding the matter as Entry 1 of List 2 of the Seventh Schedule deals with “public order” which is essentially linked to conversion of religious faith and hence, conversion remains a state matter and must not be confused with “religion” which is a central matter.
As much as the need for anti-conversion laws is felt, it is an established fact now that these laws make conversion a public affair by making it necessary to seek permission before converting or serving a notice to the DM. Those who oppose these laws are of the opinion that these legislations rarely result in convictions as it is very difficult to prove coercion or allurement as the reason behind one’s conversion of religious faith. There are a lot of individuals who personally want to convert their religious faith but abstain from doing so because of fear of imprisonment and unnecessary publicity.