The right of a person to convert from one religion to another has to be viewed against the duality of constitutional rights and historical religious mobility in India.
This judicial decision in 1977 coupled with the anti-conversion statutes have succeeded in putting the issue of conversions within the shroud of illegality.
In 1998, as Christians facing repeated attacks in the Dangs, Gujarat, the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee urged that a national debate on conversions be held. Now, in wake of the continuing violence against the Christian community in Orissa and the recent attacks on Churches in Karnataka, the BJP is once again calling for the same debate. In fact, Senior BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu has strongly demanded that anti-conversion laws be introduced in Orissa and Karnataka.
It would be interesting to most to know that Orissa was the first state to introduce anti-conversion law in 1967. According to a article in the Combat Law, “Robbing Freedom of Conscience”, Tehmina Arora has reported that, according to available estimates, between July 2005 and June 2006, there were 14 arrests in Chhattisgarh, 28 in MP, and two in Orissa, the three states where the anti-conversion law is in force and that there is not even a single person who has been convicted of forcible or fraudulent conversion by any court in the country in the last 40 years.
The question that needs to be asked then is; if the anti-conversion law is the solution to the communal violence against the Christian community, why are Christians in Orissa being burnt to death despite there being an anti-conversion law in force there for 40 years now? Or ask the more fundamental question: Is conversion the real issue?
The Constitution bestows untrammelled rights on citizens of this country to profess any religion of their choice. Article 25 stated that; “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”.
In Ratilal v. State of Bombay, in 1954, the Supreme Court held that “Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to every person and not merely to the citizens of India the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess practise and propagate religion...It is immaterial also whether the propagation is made by a person in his individual capacity or on behalf of any church or institution... ”
Incidentally, the one phrase in this provision that was subject of intense debate during the drafting of the Constitution was the concept of “propagation”. Speaking at the Constituent Assembly debates on December 6, 1948, T.T. Krishnamachari stated “Objection has been taken to the inclusion of the word ‘propagate’ along with the words ‘profess and practice’ in the matter of religion. ….the fact that many people in this country have embraced Christianity is due partly to the status that it gave to them. Why should we forget that particular fact? An untouchable who became a Christian became an equal in every matter along with the high-caste Hindu, and, if we remove the need to obtain that advantage, apart from the fact that he has faith in the religion itself — well, the incentive for anybody to become a Christian will not exist”.
K.M. Munshi in his speech stated, …I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences”.
The words of KM Munshi, T.T. Krishnamachari and others indicate an open-mindedness and liberalism, which is at the heart of a democracy. It also acknowledges the inherent inequalities of the Hindu faith and the fact that it was possible that people might choose to exit that faith.
Article 25 has been subjected to some scrutiny by the Supreme Court of India. These, however, have been in the context of the so-called Anti-conversion laws or Freedom of Religion Acts passed in some States. The basic principles of these statutes are that conversion by force, fraudulent means, allurement and inducement is prohibited and a punishable offence. Further, it made it mandatory that any person converting another person from one religion to another to intimate or inform the District Magistrate of the District regarding the conversion. Failure to provide this information is also an offence.
This freedom of religion statutes were challenged before the Supreme Court in 1977 in Rev. Stainislaus v State of M.P. Here the Supreme Court held “It has to be appreciated that the freedom of religion enshrined in the article is not guaranteed in respect of one’s religion only but covers all religions alike, and it can be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following the other religions. What is freedom for one is freedom for the other, in equal measure, and there can therefore be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert a person to one’s own religion.”
This judgment does not whittle down the rights under Article 25. However, coupled with the anti-conversion statutes, it has succeeded in putting the issue of conversions within the shroud of illegality. Most importantly, this judicial decision also facilitated the linkage between conversion and prorogation ensuring that prorogation became an empty shell of a right linked necessarily to a bad word called ‘conversion’.
In this context, it is also important to remember that India is a country of multiple religiosities that have existed side by side for centuries. It can barely be said that this has been a peaceful or completely tolerant co-existence given the inherent differences in the religions. The emergence of various communities out of the generic Hindu fold could in ways be understood to be the manner in which religious affiliations are constantly changing. Be it the Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists or the Muslims and Christians. Added are the ways in which reformist movements have chosen to opt out of the Hindu fold especially given the caste hierarchy. So the Bhakti movement, Basavanna’s movement, Sufi movement against orthodoxy are prominent here.
Coming to the more contemporary context, one cannot miss Ambedkar’s famous statement that “I was born a Hindu but will not die one”. His conversion to Buddhism and subsequently lakhs of dalits to Buddhism are a demonstration of the nature of conversion and religious mobility in India. It is within this duality of constitutional rights and historical religious mobility in India that one has to view the right of a person to convert from one religion to another.
The illegal acts of the Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva organisations in Karnataka are justified as a reaction to forced conversions, very much like the genocide of Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat was justified as a reaction to the Godhra incident. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has stated that the attacks were a fallout of conversion activities in those areas and the government would enquire into charges by pro-Hindu groups that organisations were receiving foreign funds to carry out conversions. He also declared; “The government will not allow forcible conversions. The constitution does not permit it.” The Hon’ble Home Minister, Shri V.S. Acharya has gone on record stating that, “Have there been any deaths? Not even a single person is dead. There are no serious injuries to anyone, and there is no serious loss of property. I have brought the situation under control within two days. It’s a stray incident, and I’m quite confident that these won’t be repeated.”
Let us look at some facts here. Christianity as a religion came to India many centuries before it reached Europe. Despite having such a long history in India, Christians are a minority. In 2001, out of the total population of 102.8 crore (or 1.028 billion) Christians numbered only 2.4 crore i.e. 2.33 per of the total population. In Karnataka the total population is 1.9 per cent, which is lower than the national average.
The bogey of ‘forced conversions’ in reality exposes the true intentions of the the Sangh Parivar, whose ideologue Golwalkar expounded, “The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture[..] or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights.’
It is this vision that is being enforced by the activities of the Bajrang Dal with the active support of the BJP. The Constitution is of no value to these fundamentalist groups. If demonising the Muslim community was the project in the past decades; that project is complete. The Muslim community having to carry the baggage from Partition onwards, the easiest accusation that was thrown was of them being anti-national, pro-Pakistan and terrorists. A look at a Muslim and the first thought that comes to mind is terrorist or Pakistani! The new project is the targeting of the Christian minorities. The bogey of ‘forced conversions’ has been raised and there is now talk of an Anti-Conversion Act for Karnataka as well.
(With inputs from Dr. Dominic D.)