A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court recently observed that forced conversions is a “very serious issue” which can ultimately affect national safety, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
The Bench also observed that there may be a freedom of religion, but no freedom for forced conversion. The top court asked the central government to file an affidavit outlining its plans to combat fraudulent or compulsory religious conversions.
What is the case?
- The SC was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking directions from the Centre and states to take stringent action against forced religious conversion carried out through intimidation or by luring people using gifts and monetary benefits.
- Argument of the petitioner —
- The issue is a pan-India problem which needs urgent intervention either through a separate law to control such conversions or adding the offence to the existing Indian Penal Code (IPC).
- For example, spreading the popularity of a single faith, as people are getting attracted towards Christianity in huge numbers not just in the northeast or tribal areas, but even in the plains of Punjab.
- The victims of such forceful conversions are often socially and economically under privileged people, particularly belonging to the Scheduled castes and tribes.
- This not only offends Articles 14 (equality before the law), 21 (right to life), 25 (freedom of conscience and freedom to profess, practice and propagate the religion) of the Constitution, but is also against the principles of secularism, which is integral part of basic structure of Constitution.
- Earlier case — In 2021, a three-judge bench had dismissed a petition demanding law on forced conversion, as religious conversion law would be violative of the constitution, which allows joining of any religion of choice and that’s why the word “propagate” in the Constitution.
- Conversion in India is not limited to a particular religion — Apart from converting to other faiths like Islam and Christianity, there have also been incidents of conversion to Hinduism. For example, in 2021, 300 Muslims in Haryana converted to Hinduism.
Niyogi Commission (1956) report –
- The commission was set up in Madhya Pradesh after several complaints of conversion of tribal Hindus to Christianity came up.
- Since independence there has been an appreciable increase in the American personnel of the missionary organisations operating in India.
- Enormous sums of foreign money flow into the country for mass evangelism (spreading teachings of Christianity) through the press, film, radio and television, securing nearly 4,000 converts.
- Tribals and Harijans are the special targets for the reason that there is no adequate provision of hospitals, schools, orphanages and other social welfare services in the scheduled or specified areas.
Conversion laws in the past —
- Pre-independence — The anti-conversion laws had been there in several Hindu princely states, e.g. Raigarh, Bikaner, Kota, Jodhpur, Surguja, Patna, Udaipur and Kalahandi.
- Post-independence — The states of Orissa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), passed similar laws in the 1960s. However, the Arunachal Pradesh law was never implemented.
SC judgment in Rev Stanislaus case of 1977 –
- The SC in this case held that MP Freedom of Religion Act, 1968 and Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, were constitutional even though both these Acts were hindrances in the propagation of religion. It also held that the “right to propagate” does not mean the “right to convert”.
- Significance — As the line between propagation and conversion is very thin this judgment has saved the society from great public mischief.
- Ripple effects of the verdict — Since the verdict came, over a dozen states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, UP, Uttarakhand passed stringent conversion laws.
- Underlying claim — The anti-conversion laws are framed on the basis that legal safeguards, including IPC provisions, have failed to stop religious conversions through “coercion”, “intimidation”, “allurement”, “threats”.
Issues with the contemporary anti-conversion laws –
- Poor conviction rate — For example, in 2021, Madhya Pradesh came up with a stringent ordinance and within the first 23 days, as many as 23 cases were filed alleging forced conversions. However, none of them have resulted in conviction.
- The anti-conversion laws do not consider re-conversion as conversion (they are rather called “ghar wapsi”, that is, homecoming).
- State intervention in private affairs — Also called Freedom of Religion laws, these laws provide for the prior permission of public authorities for conversion which is a private act with which the state should have no concern.
- Based on presumptions — These laws had been enacted on the premise that women, SCs and STs are vulnerable, need protection. Thus, these laws perpetuate social hierarchies of a casteist and patriarchal nature.
- Against international treaties — International human rights instruments like Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party, specifically include the right to conversion within the freedom of religion provided.
- Against people’s right to protest — Mass conversions in independent India, though rare, have been acts of protest against social discrimination. Example – The 1982 Meenakshipuram conversions, when 180 Dalit families in a Tamil Nadu village embraced Islam
- No considerable increase in population — Nationally speaking, there is no significant increase in the number of Christians, though in some villages/tribal areas, their numbers have gone up. Christians are just 2.3% of India’s population but they are in a majority in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. As per PEW findings, only 0.4 per cent Hindu adults are Christian converts.
Thorough investigation on the conversion–related problems, such as whether sate conversion laws are effective in stopping forceful conversion, and if state laws are ineffective, what is the guarantee that a central legislation would put an end to forced conversions, is required. In addition, the standard for action against “fraudulent” conversions must be raised so that it does not infringe on fundamental freedoms.
Source – The Indian Express
QUESTION – The issue of religious conversions has been hotly debated in India even before independence but it requires a balanced approach to circumscribe the trends that may go against national safety, freedom of religion and conscience. Discuss in light of the recent Supreme Court observations.