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Anti-Conversion Laws: Fair & square

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India is a diverse country with a wide range of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups living within its borders. Unsurprisingly, it is also the birthplace of four major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Over the course of its history, foreign invaders have often attempted to annex large portions of India. The indigenous people of India have also seen forced religious conversion by coercion, which has instilled distrust in their minds.

This vital issue was even acknowledged by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel during the Constituent Assembly Debates; in his words, It is well known in this country that there are mass conversions, conversions by force, conversions by coercion and undue influence, and we cannot disguise the fact that children also have been converted, that children with parents have been converted and that orphans have been converted.

The issue of mass religious conversion is not new rather ages old; Bharuch, Gujarat Religious Conversion is one such recent example, where hundreds of Hindu tribal families were converted into Islam which sparked a nationwide furore. Foreign funding and false Hindu identities were reportedly utilized to proselytize the impoverished tribals by promising them money, food, employment, clothing, and education.

Anti-conversion law has been around in India for a long time; Odisha (then Orissa) was the first state to enact the law in 1967. Anti-conversion laws may also be found dating all the way back to the British period when Hindu princely states enacted anti-conversion laws in order to protect the Hindu religious identity from Christian missionaries. Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur & Raigarh are such princely states.

With Independence came a series of anti-conversion law, none of which were passed by the Indian Parliament owing to lack of support. The first was the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill that was introduced in 1954, which didn’t get enough votes in the Parliament to pass. This was accompanied by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960, which attempted to prevent Hindus from converting to ‘non-Indian religions,’ which included Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, as defined in the Bill. Later, in 1979, the Freedom of Religion Bill was introduced, aiming to officially restrict inter-religious conversion. All these bills failed to get parliamentary support and were not passed.

The Indian government attempted to pass national anti-conversion law in recent years, but it was thwarted since the Constitution assigns responsibility to maintain law and order to the states. Therefore, this responsibility was taken up by the states and aftermath Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and recently Karnataka passed the law which prohibits and criminalizes unlawful conversion from one religion to another by force, fraud, or allurement. Some of these laws also involve the practice of religious conversion only for the sake of marriage. Although there are minor differences amongst state laws, the substance and structure of each are essentially similar.

Article 25 of the Constitution grants the citizen freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion; however subject to public order, morality, and health. The phrase ‘propagate’ was extensively debated in this context during the case of Rev Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh, in which the Supreme Court considered whether the freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion included the right to convert. The court ruled that “restrictions [by states, notably Odisha and Madhya Pradesh] on attempts to convert are constitutional since such attempts impede on ‘freedom of conscience’ and ‘public order.’” Furthermore, the Court determined “propagation” did not include the right to convert and that the term solely applied to non-coercive means of persuasion/exposition.

According to the naysayers, these laws are a threat to India’s secularism, which is unsubstantiated because it has been established that the right to propagate doesn’t quite entail the right to convert, and since there is no right to convert, these laws can be used to tackle the issue and prevent future mass conversions that arise due to luring or forcing the impoverished sections of the community. However, the ideologies of certain organizations may be so strong that they would go to any length to upset law and order to achieve their ends.

Owing to the fact that every previous law enacted with regard to religion has been perceived only as a threat to secularism and not through the lens of upliftment and protection, it is no surprise that these laws have been the topic of much discussion and controversy. These laws have been misconstrued as outright bans on conversion, whereas in fact they merely serve to safeguard the conversion process to prevent impoverished people from being abused. The anti-conversion law, like other laws that regulate specific processes, should be understood in this light as well, therefore regulating the conversion process.

In no way should the Article 25 of the Indian Constitution be subverted or twisted to suit a detrimental agenda pleasing some sections of the society. The anti-conversion law in India must be regarded and viewed from this perspective. Anti-conversion law is based on the notion that people are coerced or influenced to change their religion, and that this should be prohibited. Such laws can assist to prohibit religious organizations from forcing or enticing individuals to change to any religion, such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. In the Lok Sabha, Naidu has echoed this sentiment, and even in the Constituent Assembly debates, Sardar Patel acknowledged the problem of religious conversions.

Under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has released new regulatory instructions to banks. However, while the amount of foreign aid received annually has increased by almost twofold between 2010 and 2019, the aid is not being put to good use. When reports surfaced that almost 13 NGOs were evangelizing in tribal regions, notably in Jharkhand, the FCRA suspended and blocked their registration to collect foreign contributions for ‘religious’ purposes, and their bank accounts were frozen in September 2020.

It was in September of 2021 that the Home Ministry revoked the licenses of six non-governmental organizations, including Christian evangelist groups and Islamic charities tied to religious conversion for misappropriation of money. The basic focus behind conversion from one religion to another religion, as pointed out by Delhi High Court, is to seek God from another platform but unfortunately, today proselytization is increasingly done for reaping benefits. The High Court further said that a legislative intervention in this regard seems imperative to curb the controversies and court battles arising on the premise of the convert’s religious status in matrimonial cases.

To summarise, anti-conversion laws implemented in several states do not outright forbid conversions, but rather offer a protective mechanism for the impoverished from being exploited by religion converter who receive foreign funding for this unlawful purpose. Since the Constitution does not provide the right to convert, anti-conversion law is lawful and solely tries to halt the rising number of cases of ‘forced’ religious conversions carried out by ensnaring the poor in their net.

For clarity’s sake, it should be pointed out that the one’s will to choose any religion for conversion still remains open. For what reason is there so much outcry since there is no prohibition on wilful conversion? The answer is clear: Some organisations may have loathsome views that make them willing to break the law to achieve their unlawful goals. Lastly, it is our responsibility as citizens to weigh in on controversial issues, but we must do so with an open mind and free conscience, rather than blindly echoing the chorus of naysayers.

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