Religious conversion is the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus “religious conversion” would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.

This might be from one to another denomination within the same religion, for example, from Baptist to Catholic Christianity or from Sunni Islam to Shi’a Islam. In some cases, religious conversion “marks a transformation of religious identity and is symbolized by special rituals”.

People convert to a different religion for various reasons, including active conversion by free choice due to a change in beliefs, secondary conversion, deathbed conversion, conversion for convenience, marital conversion, and forced conversion.

Religious Conversion

The Debate of ‘Right to Propagate’ Vs ‘Right to Convert’

  • Historical background: Article 25 talks about the term “propagate” which means to promote or transmit or merely a freedom of expression.
    • At the time of drafting of the Indian Constitution, drafters used the word “conversion”.
    • But in the final draft they went with the recommendations made by the Sub-Committee on Minorities (M. Ruthnaswamy) and used ‘propagate’ in place of ‘conversion’ and left the debate open as to whether the right to propagate included conversion.
  • Judicial pronouncements in this regard:
    • Rev Stanislaus Vs Madhya Pradesh, 1977: The Supreme Court concluded that the right to propagate does not include the right to convert.
    • Recently, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice M.R. Shah said charity by religious groups is welcome but the intention of such acts cannot be religious conversion. It also held that forced religious conversion is a “very serious issue” which can affect national safety, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Religion in Constitution

  • India does not have any state religion nor it patronizes any specific religion. Religion is basically a matter of choice, faith or sets of belief.
  • Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution of India grant the Right to Freedom of Religion in India not only individuals but also religious groups in India.
  • Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion):
    • Article 25 provides the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate religion to all citizens.
    • However, these freedoms can be restricted on the basis of public order, health, and morality
  • Article 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs):
    • The right to form and maintain institutions for religious and charitable intents
    • The right to manage its own religious affairs
    • The right to own and acquire movable and immovable property
    • The right to administer such property in accordance with law
  • Article 27 (Freedom from payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion):
    • No person shall be forced to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically used in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
  • Article 28 (Freedom to attend religious instructions):
    • No religion instruction shall be allowed in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.
    • This condition shall not apply to an educational institution which is administered by the State but has been established under any endowment or trust that mandates that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution
    • Individual attending any educational institution recognized by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall not be required to take part in any religious instruction.

What is the Status of Anti-Conversion Laws in India?

  • Pre-independence: Laws restricting religious conversions were originally introduced by princely states headed by Hindu royal families during the British colonial period — particularly during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s.
    • These states enacted the laws “in an attempt to preserve Hindu religious identity in the face of British missionaries”.
    • The states that had such laws include Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur, and Kalahandi etc.
  • Constitutional Provision: The Indian Constitution under Article 25 guarantees the freedom to profess, propagate, and practise religion, and allows all religious sections to manage their own affairs in matters of religion; subject to public order, morality, and health.
    • However, no person shall force their religious beliefs and consequently, no person should be forced to practice any religion against their wishes.
  • Existing Laws: There has been no central legislation restricting or regulating religious conversions.
    • However, since 1954, on multiple occasions, Private Member Bills have been introduced in (but never approved bythe Parliament, to regulate religious conversions.
    • Further, in 2015, the Union Law Ministry stated that Parliament does not have the legislative competence to pass anti-conversion legislation.
    • Over the years, several states have enacted ‘Freedom of Religion’ legislation to restrict religious conversions carried out by force, fraud, or inducements.
      • Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003, Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017, Uttarakhand Freedom of Religious Act, 2018, The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2021.
Laws of Religious Conversions in India

What are the Issues Associated with Anti-Conversion Laws?

  • Uncertain and Vague Terminology:
    • The uncertain and vague terminology like misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement presents a serious avenue for misuse.
    • These terms leave room for ambiguities or are too broad, extending to subjects far beyond the protection of religious freedom.
  • Antithetical to Minorities:
    • Another issue is that the present anti-conversion laws focus more on the prohibition of conversion to achieve religious freedom.
    • However, the broad language used by the prohibitive legislation might be used by officials to oppress and discriminate against minorities.
  • Antithetical to Secularism:
    • These laws may pose a threat to the secular fabric of India and the international perception of our society’s intrinsic values and legal system.

What is the Need for Anti-Conversion Laws?

  • No Right to Proselytize:
    • The Constitution confers on each individual the fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate his religion.
      • Proselytizing is the act of trying to convert another individual from the convertee’s religion to the converter’s religion.
    • The individual right to freedom of conscience and religion cannot be extended to construe a collective right to proselytize.
    • For the right to religious freedom belongs equally to the person converting and the individual sought to be converted.
  • Fraudulent Marriages:
    • In the recent past, several instances have come to the notice that whereby people marry persons of other religion by either misrepresentation or concealment of their own religion and after getting married they force such other person to convert to their own religion.

What are Supreme Court Judgements on Marriage and Conversion?

  • Hadiya Judgement 2017:
    • Matters of dress and of food, of ideas and ideologies, of love and partnership are within the central aspects of identity.
    • Neither the State nor the law can dictate a choice of partners or limit the free ability of every person to decide on these matters.
    • The principle that the right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21.
  • K.S. Puttaswamy or ‘privacy’ Judgment 2017:
    • Autonomy of the individual was the ability to make decisions in vital matters of concern to life.
  • Other Judgements:
    • The SC in its various judgments, has held that faith, the state and the courts have no jurisdiction over an adult’s absolute right to choose a life partner.
    • India is a “free and democratic country” and any interference by the State in an adult’s right to love and marry has a “chilling effect” on freedoms.
    • Intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy, which is inviolable and the choice of a life partner, whether by marriage or outside it, is part of an individual’s “personhood and identity”.
    • The absolute right of an individual to choose a life partner is not in the least affected by matters of faith.

Way Forward

  • The governments implementing such laws need to ensure that these do not curb one’s Fundamental Rights or hamper the national integration instead, these laws need to strike a balance between freedoms and malafide conversions.

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