The Law on Religious Conversions

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When the missionary of another religion goes to them, he goes like a vendor of goods. He has no special spiritual merit that will distinguish him from those to whom he goes. He does however possess material goods which he promises to those who will come to his fold.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Introduction

Religious Conversion is not new to India and has surfaced frequently in the past socio-political dynamics of the country. Evidently, a large group of people reckon this issue to be of crucial importance in deciding the future of society. Once again, religious conversion has become the subject of ardent debate of contemporary India. Recent events and statements made by public figures threaten to put a dent on India’s secular fabric. One of the largest churches in Delhi was burnt down and there have been allegations that the police response was inefficient. Subsequently, in Agra, Uttar Pradesh 200 Muslims were converted back to Hinduism by Hindu right wing groups in a homecoming ceremony. This heightened religious intolerance does not seem to have even escaped affairs involving children, as in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad banned Santa Claus distributing sweets to children because ‘it might entice them into converting to Christianity.’ Resultantly, the government’s response to tackle the conflict at hand was to purport the enactment of a national anti-conversion law. The proposal brought the issue of human rights at the core of assessing the concept of religious conversion to spotlight. Therefore, this article attempts to assess the pros and cons of having a national anti-conversion law in a secular state.

Religion and The Law

Personal and group identities involve within them certain legal complexities which imbues as a theme for religious conversions. However, these conversions seem to have flummoxed the courts to observe distinct identities of such individual cases. Categorization of individuals into castes and religion has confounded the courts to delineate which ‘personal law’ governs whom and this gets further complicated by conversions. Judges and administrators grapple with the ambiguities of personal and group identities, including the authenticity of converts. In India and elsewhere, certain rights (to citizenship, to affirmative action benefits, to alimony and else) vary depending on one’s religious identity, making conversion both a religious and a political act.

The Debate of Secularism

Recent times have observed an increasing focus of scholars on law and religion in the Islamic States, but the work of Marc Galanter resurfaces the intertwined nature of law and religion even in countries like India that are a secular constitutional state where freedom of religion is guaranteed by the collective will of the governed.  A secular state is defined as the state that arrogates to be independent from all religious truths. However, Galanter contends that “No secular state is or can be merely neutral or impartial among religions, for the state defines the boundaries within which neutrality must operate.” One way in which state defines boundaries is by ascertaining and recognising what is claimed to be religion, while other facets are put to subject of indifference; ultimately some aspects are restricted and forbidden. Another way is by monitoring the walls between religions. These walls are transcended by people during conversion which enables the state to manoeuvre the role of a doorman to regulate the laws determining conversion. This role attains manifestation in the anti-conversion legislations existent in various states in India.

Interpreting Article 25

The state laws restricting conversions became the subject of major Supreme Court decision in Stanislaus case.  This case focused primarily on Article 25 of the Constitution of India which states that subject to public order, morality and health, and to the other fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, all persons are equally entitled to “freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess practise and propagate religion.” The right to propagate one’s religion means the right to communicate the person’s beliefs to another person or to expose the tenets of that faith, but would not include the right to convert another person to the former’s faith, because the latter is equally entitled to freedom of conscience. Resultantly, Article 25(1) of the Constitution does not insure the right to convert rather guarantees only the right to freely propagate, profess and practice one’s own religion. Forcible conversion which is likely to give rise to an apprehension of breech of public order and which is reprehensible to the conscience of the community is not permissible under this Article.

The Flaw in the Law.

The anti-conversion laws in India restricts religious conversions via “force” and “allurement”, in particular. Enforcement of such legislation necessitates evaluating a convert’s state of mind by examining their motives and will to convert or in assessing whether the conversion was legitimate or the converts were “lured”. This assessment made by the courts or government in recent times is stemmed on two assumptions: one, the conversion in groups may not have freely chosen conversion and two that certain groups are particularly vulnerable to being lured into changing their religion. These assumptions have become the foundation to source out the social fabric notions that considers women and lower caste as inherently primitive and amenable to allurement.

The state laws prohibit conversion through force, allurement and fraud. However, there strives ambiguity in the language of the statutes which makes it difficult to analyse the convert’s motives and define the boundaries of allurement, fraud and force. Unfortunately, none of the words have been clearly defined in the legislations. For example, there have been instances documented in government reports where people have converted due to medical, financial and material benefit all of which stem from the spirituality of faith. In other instances, people have reconverted to their original religion if they did not receive from the divine what they had initially prayed for. For Instance: ‘Family of Kala Marandi remained Christian for 3 years. Her husband was suffering from some incurable disease. He got cured when he became Christian but later died in an accident. Kala Marandi then again became a Hindu in 1998’. The problem has further become manifold at the backdrop of policies like reservation other personal law benefits like polygamy and also to get rid of unwanted caste hierarchy systems.

The laws require assessment of metaphysical beliefs and volitions of individuals. The complexity involved raises the question of evaluating “threats” of divine displeasure, “allurement” of mass converts as it involves the reading of the mind of the convert which is a challenge per se. For example, paying the convert some amount in exchange of conversion or getting converted in order to get reservation are both sets of allurement. In some states, the law requires a prior registration with the district magistrate before the conversion takes place. Therefore, it requires the converts to subject themselves and their subjective reasoning to the inspection of the District Magistrate in order to detect the presence of fraud, allurement or force in those conversions. Furthermore, the laws have penal effectiveness with either imprisonment extending upto one year or fine or both.

The Convert becomes the Object.

The entire turf of war between political extremists over religious conversions seems to have projected the converts as objects of political diabolism. This has perpetuated to shape the consequences for the lower-status groups. Conversion laws construct women, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled castes as victims and constructs converts (particularly group converts) as passive dupes of the machinations of active converters. The religious leaders have placed the potential convert as the victim; either for continuing with the same religion or for disregarding a religion. Conversion laws, therefore, is a double edged sword: it is a protective legislation but is restrictive also.

Conclusion

In a heterogeneous society like India, there needs to be a cohesive tie between the pluralistic identities thereby constructing a harmonious thread between the varying religion existent. It is quite a possibility that a national anti-conversion law will cast away the freedom of religion which is perhaps embodied by the constitution. Freedom of religion is central to human rights and is, therefore, more subjective, individualistic or personal in nature. Of course, forced conversions are in direct contravention of public morality and human free will but the Indian penal laws are effective enough to tackle the problem of forced conversions.  Enacting a “protective” anti-conversion legislation would further impose restrictions on people as has been exemplified in various government documents which would violate freedom of religion rather than protection per se. Thus, conversion or reconversion should continue to remain a personal, subjective affair without any intervention from state/political diabolism or “protection”.

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