The Supreme Court on January 9, 2023 said the Tamil Nadu government prima facie was giving “political colour” to a case concerning the “very serious” issue of religious conversions through force, deceit, and allurement, which was a concern for the entire nation.
The court asked Attorney General R. Venkataramani for his assistance, considering “the seriousness and importance” of the case.
The oral observation came from a Bench of Justices M.R. Shah and C.T. Ravikumar when senior advocate P. Wilson, for Tamil Nadu, said the petitioner, advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, was a “BJP spokesperson,” “facing a case of sedition” and the case was “politically motivated.”
Mr. Wilson said the issue of religious conversion was a State subject under List 2 Entry 1 of the Constitution. There were no illegal religious conversions in Tamil Nadu as alleged by the petitioner. A law on religious conversions of 2002 was subsequently repealed in Tamil Nadu.
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“Leave this matter to the legislature. There is no threat of conversion in our State. This is a politically motivated litigation. He [Mr. Upadhyay] has made Tamil Nadu, the State government, a party,” Mr. Wilson objected vociferously.
‘Do it outside’
“Do not try to bring political colour. Prima facie today the State government wants to bring political colour. We are concerned with the people… You may have so many reasons to be agitated like this but do it outside. We are considering a particular issue and not concerned with the ‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’ State. If it [forcible or deceitful religious conversions] is happening in your State, it is bad. If it is not happening, then good. We are not targeting only one State,” Justice Shah addressed Mr. Wilson.
The court said the alleged antecedents of Mr. Upadhyay made “no difference.”
“When a case is brought to the court, the court will decide… Restrict yourselves to the point under consideration,” Justice Shah said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta agreed that the issue of illegal conversions was of “national interest.”
“There is a difference between the freedom of religion and the freedom of conversion. Everybody can, but there are ways and not by allurement. What should be done? What corrective measures can be taken?” Justice Shah outlined the issue to the Attorney General, who was summoned to the courtroom.
Mr. Upadhyay said he was addressing “an act of aggression” in his petition. He vehemently opposed a submission that his petition was not backed by any data whatsoever that illegal religious conversions were happening in the country.
“I have books to show,” he said, raising a pile of books in court.
One of the lawyers said “scurrilous remarks” were made in the petition regarding minorities. He referred to social media posts.
“Don’t bother about allegations and counter-allegations. The law will take its own course,” Justice Shah said.
“But the law is made on the basis of facts,” the lawyer said.
The Bench took note of senior advocate Sanjay Hegde’s suggestion, backed by Mr. Venkataramani, to rename the case, saying this could be done in “contentious PILs.” The court renamed the case as ‘In re: On the issue of religious conversions’.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar, who was appearing for Mr. Upadhyay, submitted there was no specific provision in the Indian Penal Code on illegal conversions.
“That is for the legislature to consider… whether to amend the IPC or not. But we have to consider the issue in the larger perspective and see what can be done in this situation,” Justice Shah said, posting the case for February 7.
On November 11, the Bench led by Justice Shah had highlighted that religious conversions by means of force, allurement or fraud may “ultimately affect the security of the nation and freedom of religion and conscience of citizens” while directing the Centre to “step in” and clarify what it intends to do to curb compulsory or deceitful religious conversions.
On December 5, the court had orally observed that conversion should not be the hidden intention behind charity and good work.
The Ministry of Home Affairs had filed an affidavit saying that the right to religion did not include the right to convert other people to a particular religion, especially through fraud, deception, coercion, allurement, and other means.
The Ministry had said the word ‘propagate’ in Article 25 (right to freedom of religion) did not include the right to convert.
The government had said, “fraudulent or induced conversion impinged upon the right to freedom of conscience of an individual apart from hampering public order and, therefore, the state is well within its power to regulate/restrict it.”
The Centre had said statutes enacted in the past to curb “the menace of organised, sophisticated large-scale illegal conversion” were upheld by the Supreme Court.