Religious conversion in India

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 25 December 2014

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Article Title:”Losing my religion: If minority communities have the right to convert others then so does the majority”

During the framing of India’s Constitution, the matter of whether it should guarantee the right to not just freely profess and practise one’s religion but also to propagate it was much debated. Ultimately, Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees all three, but subject to “public order, morality and health”.

The Hindu right has often accused Christian and Muslim proselytisers of using inducement or coercion to get Hindus to convert. Missionaries from those religions – as well as secular, liberal activists – have invariably opposed such accusations, and have stood in favour of ensuring constitutional protection for propagating religion. Ironically, neither side has been consistent in the principles of its stand, sometimes arguing in opposite directions depending on who the converters are and who the converted.

Though Hinduism is not considered a proselytising religion, Hindu missionaries are not exactly a new phenomenon. The ancient evangelist Adi Shankaracharya led a movement to revitalise Hinduism in light of the growth of Buddhism. And the first modern-day Hindu missionary effort, seeking to reconvert those whose ancestors had left the fold, was the Arya Samajis’ Shuddhi movement of the early 20th century. It faced fierce resistance, culminating in the assassination of Swami Shraddhanand in 1926.

Born that year was the man who later became known as Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, another Hindu missionary who was in turn also killed in 2008, triggering the riots in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. But violence has not been the preserve of any one group, as the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons proved, also in Odisha, in 1999.

Recent incidents of conversion have again reignited the issue, with sections of the opposition resolutely stopping Parliament from functioning, particularly the Rajya Sabha where the government is in a minority. In the process, however, both old and new fault lines are on display.

Many in the opposition who have in the past stoutly defended the right of the minorities to proselytise – and rejected allegations of coercion or inducement – are today taking exactly the opposite stand when it concerns proselytising by the majority. And just as blatantly, some who have energetically opposed minority missionaries are adopting both their tactics and their arguments.

Though it is today a BJP government and its supporters who are suggesting a national law to regulate conversions, such suggestions have come in the past too, when Congress was in government. Bills were proposed to be introduced in Parliament in 1954, 1960 and 1979, but fell through for lack of support. And upon mass conversions in Meenakshipuram in 1981, it was a Congress-led union government that advised all states to enact laws regulating conversions.

Such laws have been passed by several states and have even withstood constitutional challenges. The first two were by Odisha as far back as 1967, and then Madhya Pradesh (1968). Both wound their way to the Supreme Court, where a constitution bench upheld them. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the public order caveat of the constitutional guarantee, as well as its determination that both the state laws guaranteed religious freedom to all.

The Supreme Court’s ruling also held that while Article 25 of the Constitution grants the freedom of conscience to all, as also the right to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets, it does not confer the right to convert another person to one’s own religion.

Subsequently Chhattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006) and Rajasthan (2008) have passed laws to regulate conversions. Tamil Nadu had passed its anti-forcible conversion law in 2002, but repealed it in 2005. Incidentally, state laws regulating conversions are not just a post- independence feature. In British India, the princely states of Raigarh, Patna and Udaipur had far more rigid laws, which in fact were aimed squarely at preventing conversions to Christianity.

Nevertheless, the UN rapporteur for religious freedom, Hiener Bielefeldt, has said that these state laws undermine religious freedom in India. Despite lauding India as the birthplace of many religions and its heritage of pluralism, he asserts that the requirement of converts having to explain their reasons for conversion is humiliating and wrongly attributes the state with somehow having the ability to assess its genuineness.

Though the UN rapporteur concedes that coercion must be prevented, he also states that such concepts as inducement or allurement are not only vague but that “any invitation to another religion has elements of inducement or allurement”. He notes that these are “loosely defined terms” and don’t meet the standards of criminal justice, in which “laws need to be clear”.

So, would a national law help? Could it be precise and clear, thus giving force to the Constitution’s provisions, both its rights and protections? Might it help overcome the current contradictions? After all, since all sides have indulged in propagating their religions – and faced accusations of coercing, inducing and alluring – it is theoretically possible to agree on a minimum definition of acceptable norms that are compatible with the Constitution.

But in practice, it is highly unlikely that there can be any such consensus across the political spectrum on a new law regulating conversions, clear or otherwise. If the issue lingers on, sooner or later the nation’s highest court will have to step in again.