Anti-Conversion Laws

Conversion in India is a debate which goes back to the formation of the Constitution, which explicitly states the freedom of individuals to choose their religion. States are now bringing in laws which make it harder for people to convert their religion. In this reading list, we delve into the issue of conversion and anti-conversion law.

 

 

The Karnataka state government has reignited the debate on religious conversion, bringing back to life an old bill that has been shelved many times over the years due to the high level of controversy it rakes up each time. However, this time, with a majority government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Basavaraj Bommai, the Anti-Conversion Bill has been passed for the first time in the state. Karnataka is not the first state in India that has brought out a law which hampers the fundamental right for the Freedom of Religion, which is not just limited to practising one’s religion but also choosing to practise whichever religion one desires to. One of the early reasons for why an anti-conversion bill was drafted in an Indian state was because there was an alleged rise in the number of people from the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC) communities from Hinduism, converting to minority religions. The reasons for why we need this bill across states in India, is actually quite ambiguous. In the media, politicians are often seen saying that minorities in India might outrun the Hindu population because of forced conversions that keep taking place. The reality is far from this.

The matter of religion in politics has always been a contentious one. Historically, we have seen the Indian subcontinent as a space that has constantly tussled with exclusion and segregation in opposition to tolerance and acceptance. Through a modern perspective many may ask why do we need religion in our lives? What makes one religion better than the other? Why are we inherently apprehensive about our religious identities? A series of psychological and sociological analysis may be helpful in addressing these questions. But what needs our attention is where does the state intervene between the relationship of its citizens to their religion, and why is our religious identity always already susceptible to usurpation. Though the Indian state is meant to not intervene in religious practices and propagation, it does intervene when supposedly religious activity disturbs public order or the well-being of its citizens. In recent times, India has been witnessing massive polarisation in the manner in which the state is choosing one religion over the other, and tying it with certain ideologies of nationalism. Thus, it is important to understand the provocations for formulating anti-conversion legislations, and how they are inherently discriminatory and stemming from an exclusivist agenda of othering. 

Religion and the Constitution of India

The Constitution of India clearly delineates the state’s relationship with religion. The Right to Freedom of Religion in the Constitution forms one of the seven categories into which the fundamental rights given in Part III of the Constitution are divided, Religious liberty also figures prominently in the Preamble, as among the "objectives which the Constitution has to secure is "Liberty of the thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.” The Constitution makes it clear that no shall be singled out for endowment by the state. All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion - Article 25 No be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are appropriated in payment of expenses of any particular religious denomination- Article 27. Article 28, freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or w educational institutions, lays down that no religious instruction be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained outside the state fund (Souza 1952). However, these provisions made in the Constitution are constantly debated (as they should be), but in some cases, they are modified for the benefit of those in the majority sitting in the Parliament.

The Anti-conversion Legislations across States in India

The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in their special article in EPW reflects on what it means to be a convert. Their findings show that states like Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha mention that: " 'Conversion' means renouncing one religion and adopting another,” whereas in states like Gujarat it means “to make one person one religion and adopt another.” They say that the state must interfere in matters of coercion, where conversion takes place by violence or forcefully. “However, the language adopted by the anti-conversion legislations goes far beyond the protection of this right, and indeed, in no way appears to be motivated by the desire to protect the freedom of conscience. Instead, the danger of "discriminatory abuse in their application" is very real. The terminology used by these legislations transforms them from their purported role as protectors of constitutional rights into violators of these very guarantee” (South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, EPW 2008). The interesting aspect is that these bills are not directly called Prohibition of Religious Conversion bills, but are rather worded as “Freedom of Religion” legislations. The wording may not disconcert an average citizen and may not seem to be a threat to the democratic fabric of the country and its constitution—on the surface. However, the reality is that over the years, several states have enacted “Freedom of Religion” legislation to restrict religious conversions carried out by force, fraud, or inducements.  These are: (i) Odisha (1967), (ii) Madhya Pradesh (1968), (iii) Arunachal Pradesh (1978), (iv) Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006), (v) Gujarat (2003), (vi) Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), (vii) Jharkhand (2017), and (viii) Uttarakhand (2018). Additionally, the Himachal Pradesh (2019) and Uttarakhand legislations also declare a marriage to be void if it was done for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion, or vice versa. Further, the states of Tamil Nadu (2002) and Rajasthan (2006 and 2008) had also passed similar legislation  (PRS 2020).

Religious Demographics

Though research has pointed out that the religious demography has been relatively stable since the partition, with the numbers showing that Hindus make up 79.8% of India’s population and Muslims account for 14.2%; Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains account for most of the remaining 6%. Between 1951 and 2011, the share of Muslims in India grew modestly, by about 4 percentage points, while the share of Hindus declined by about 4 points. The shares of Indians in other religions held relatively steady. Muslims are growing somewhat faster than other groups because of fertility differences (PEW 2021).

Still, various people in power continue to accuse the minorities of trying to overrun the country with other denominations. Take this instance in Tamil Nadu, where Justice  G R Swaminathan's verdict on a bail petition from the Madras High Court on 7 January 2022, seems more like personal band standing than anything to do with legal matters:

Demographic change also challenged the basic national values and the very sacred geometry of India … In postcard scenarios the ringing of a church bell meant joy and happiness but in Kanyakumari district of 1980s it meant for the Hindus a call for their destruction. We lived the way Jews lived in a pre-Holocaust German village. When Hindus retaliated then with the strong media support only the retaliations and reactions were highlighted in vacuum. But the retaliation was surely forceful and nothing to be proud of. Either way people of the district suffered. But remember the physical violence starts with psychological violence and psychological violence comes from the violence embedded in the propaganda.

 

Propaganda and the Process of Othering

Thus, the arguments presented for claims such that the minority religions in India are on an agenda to outlast the Hindu majority seems gratuitous. A lot of anxiety is created in people’s minds by othering religious minorities and then posing the supposed threat of the “other” seizing their religious identity.

Such an instance can be seen in this case where Goolihatti asked for a survey of “illegal churches” (News18 2021). The police and the intelligence agencies were both pressed into service to gather information. The police said that there were no “illegal churches.” Tahsildars were asked to investigate the charges of forceful conversion, and the tahsildar of Hosadurga filed a report stating that he has verified from two villages that over 50 families had converted of their own free will and no force had been used. This tahsildar has since been transferred (The Hindu 2021; NIE 2021).

Such hate speech in the guise of a judgement comes from a sense of panic, created in the minds of a frightened Hindu majority. There has been a systematic effort by television and news media today, that uses various means of spreading this anxiety. The media is seen to proclaim rather provocatively that “Hindus are in danger”: Hindu khatre mein hai. Prime-time television debates carried these slogans constantly until people from the majority began to believe it. The recent release of a propaganda film “Kashmir Files,” which villianises the Muslims in Kashmir, has been released with several state governments waiving the entertainment tax on the film. The digital landscape is also filled with such messages. Robin Jeffrey writes in his article, “Media in Religion and Politics”:

Techniques of today’s digital media have the ready capacity to overwhelm and mislead. Rumours and lies have always been part of human experience, but today, millions can receive, enhance and transmit stories and images which recipients have no easy means of validating but which reinforce their fears, hopes and beliefs… “Source Hacking,” a report by two American scholars of media, identifies four techniques which make the digital world a playground for those who wish to spread demonstrable falsehoods in plausible, attractive packages that encourage further dissemination: viral sloganeering, leak forgery, evidence collages, and keyword squatting. All four varieties have surfaced in the past few years in India, usually with political intent.

 

It is seen that the news and digital media, as well as social media has become a way of spreading polarising propaganda that provokes certain reactions in the people, and leads to them believing any and every insinuation about the minority communities. The narrative is built in a manner that a “threat perception” of the other is created.  Authors like Cynthia Stephen ask,

As far back as 1967, the first “Freedom of Religion” bill was passed (essentially regulating conversions into minority religions) in Odisha, at a time when the population of Christians in the state was 2 lakh or 1.1% of the population, compared to the population of Hindus that was 1.7 crore. The Freedom of Religion Act was passed in Madhya Pradesh (MP) in 1968. Christians constituted just 0.29% of the population according to the 2011 Census. So, what is the threat perception from this minuscule number that such a legislation was drafted?

 

Socio Religious conversions

It is also important to ask,  why do people in India want to change their religion, what motivates them and why is this considered an issue?  In the article, “The Time of the Dalit Conversion,” Gyanendra Pandey finds that converts to other religions, to Buddhism for example, were no longer “untouchables,” but got political status as full citizens.

 

The term “dalit” (literally, “crushed”, “downtrodden” or “oppressed”), widely used as a term of description for those at the very bottom of the social, cultural, economic heap, is also now used as a term of militant self-assertion on the part of many of those so oppressed. It requires no great insight to observe that the question of the dalit conversion is tied up with the question of decolonisation in the subcontinent. The problem with this kind of internal colonialism is that the colonised cannot escape in a physical sense. They have no independent territory of their own: they cannot emigrate, and they cannot send the colonisers home. What is more, they cannot easily lay claim to an independent history and culture: indeed they gain their identity at least in part by their incorporation into the dominant culture or society: ‘African-Americans’, “the Muslims of India”, “untouchable” Hindus.

 

Many scholars take note of the fact that Hindus from lower castes took to other religions for recognition, better opportunities like compulsory education, and equality in society.

According to John Webster (Religion and Dalit Liberation: 1999), changing the religion is one of the ‘strategies' the Dalit communities adopted in their struggle to secure social justice and equality. The other four were: acquiring political power; securing as much independence as possible from the dominant castes; initiating reformist measures to reduce prejudices among themselves; and deploying cultural modes of communication, like literature and theatre, for conscientisation. (The Hindu Bhupendra Yadav 2010).

Sujit Kumar has written on how the anti-conversion bill in Jharkhand was a political strategy, wherein the Advisasis did not lose their cultural identity upon conversion to Christianity, rather their communal identity became more diverse.

Adivasi society is believed to be outside the caste system and, hence, endowed with a unique agency in a country where caste has arguably pervaded every religion apart from Hinduism. If one looks at the religious census, we find that hardly one-third of the Adivasis still submit themselves as Sarna followers, while around 40% and 15% present themselves as Hindus and Christians, respectively. Despite this, the religious rites and festivals of the Adivasis are celebrated by every Adivasi irrespective of their religious persuasion. What we need to understand is that religious conversions have hardly depleted their cultural practices. But, in this process of reproduction of culture, one can notice that Adivasi culture has not remained a watertight category and has undergone changes which gives it a more syncretic form.

The State’s Response

The fear becomes violent action, through minority persecution of individuals by fringe outfits, supported by the state’s inaction. In 2021, reports documented over 300 attacks on Christian gatherings for prayer alleging forced conversions with no proof. In the same period, another report found that there were over 40 attacks on churches and Christian gatherings in Karnataka:

In some cases, large mobs barged in during Sunday morning prayer meetings, and executed violent attacks leading to injury, damage to property, psychological and physical trauma. In some others, smaller mobs disrupted prayer meetings, threatening murder, criminal charges of forced conversion, excommunication or even the revoking of reservation rights. A common theme in these incidents is the threat of pressing criminal charges under Section 295 A and Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Not just inaction, but also, in some cases, violent state action, such as the continued denial of bail for Catholic priests over the boogeyman of conversion, even until death, as it was in the case of Fr Stan Swamy. There is not only fear, but also a sense of propriety in certain sections of the society who believe that they have the right to police personal religious inclination, despite constitutional assurances of freedom to practice and to profess one’s religion. Religion and politics are meant to be kept separate in a secular democracy. They have become currently mixed in such a way that the two are indistinguishable.  This results in state action, calling for the suppression of rights, more specifically the fundamental right of the freedom of religion, intrusion in the lives and personal life choices of minorities including food, their fundamental right to privacy, right to bail, and so on. Though the conversion from one religion to another might seem to offer certain people a sense of equality and standing as citizens, the state tries to frame such conversions as being against the best interests of them, and instead paints them as being naive and misled by “powerful” forces, who they try to protect through draconian laws to prevent its citizens from converting.

Joseph Bara breaks down the state-led accusation in many places, but specifically in Jharkhand, of the Christian church taking “advantage” of poor tribals. He argues that Adivasis have their own strong culture, and he addresses these allegations:

First, does Christianity, as a religion, come among the local backward people with the singular evil design of conversion through missionary mediators? Second, are Adivasis, on their part, so naïve as to fall easy prey to the dupes of subversive forces? Addressing the first question, let us note that all established religions are mission-oriented. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in particular are organically missionary creeds. Even Hinduism, whose missionary feature is not so pronounced, has acquired it successively. Ancient and medieval history is replete with instances of how missions worked vigorously and transported religions throughout the world. Over centuries, the Adivasis had evolved their own cultural standards. Based on those, they assessed things coming in the bogey of the missionary agenda. At times, they spurned missionary overtures. Thus, from the trail of Buddhist artefacts dispersed in Jharkhand, one may surmise that missionary Buddhism addressed the Adivasis, the sole occupant of this land then, but the Adivasis were not impressed. Similarly, Brahminical Hinduism was not acceptable to the Adivasis either. Even Christianity, with a most (sic) aggressive missionary canvas in history, took five years to attract the first converts. Still very large Adivasi masses remained indifferent.

The Question of Reconversion

Social historian Biswamoy Patil looks through the lens of colonialism to examine if people can convert to Hinduism, and looks at the “reconversion” of Adivasis in Odisha. Do “reconverts” have the same status as”born-Hindus”?

Patil writes: The unquestioned paradox is that whereas such a re-conversion is widely accepted, the concept of conversion to Hinduism is considered totally unacceptable. In contemporary India, we witness a lot of fanfare and media reports associated with adivasis when they re-convert. Here the fact that perhaps they were never Hindus to begin with seems to be always lost sight of. After all, can we locate adivasis as those who are ‘born as Hindus’? Nevertheless there seems to be a logic that accepts their re-conversion to Hinduism, without doubting their original Hindu identity. Put in another way, their Hindu identity is taken for granted, which makes re-conversion perfectly possible, acceptable and if need be, justifiable. One finds in all this a set of contradictions which homogenises all sections of adivasis and outcastes as Hindus.Whereas for the adivasis and outcastes it involves their ‘integration’ into the varna order, can the latter be actually seen as Hindus, while being simultaneously located as the outcaste Other?

Some people choose to convert religions at the time of marriage, seeing no other option. Saumya Uma and Niti Saxena write on the Anti Conversion Ordinance passed in Uttar Pradesh in 2020:

While Section 3 of the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversions ordinance prohibits religious conversions undertaken through force, fraud, etc, which, in the eyes of law, lack consent, marriage is added as an independent ground where consent is immaterial. This implies a mandatory governmental scrutiny over every religious conversion undertaken for marriage, even if with the informed consent of the individual in question. Marriage to a person from a different caste, community, religion or ethnicity has long been frowned upon and opposed by informal/unconstitutional community-based institutions, such as khap panchayats, katta panchayats, and shalishi adalats acting as self-appointed gatekeepers of Indian (Hindu) culture, who continue to threaten couples and their families with fines, social ostracism and physical harm. The key to preventing conversion for marriage lies not in enacting draconian legislations, but in streamlining procedures under the Special Marriage Act, 1954 that allow for inter-religious marriages without religious conversion.

 

Impact on Reservations

Another issue scholars have pointed out in the conversion debate is the denial of reservation by those members of the Scheduled Castes converting to other religions. By insisting that Scheduled Castes exist only among the specified religious groups, the acts, in fact, have implicated the judicial and administrative apparatuses in a process that turns religion into a tool of manipulation.

Padmanabh Samarendra writes on the state conflating caste identity with religion, and the problems it brings up with people accessing reservations.

The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 and the two amendments of 1956 and 1990 posit a direct correlation between religion and caste. Only a Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, according to these acts, can be a member of a Scheduled Caste; caste is thus assumed to exist and survive only within the specified religious communities. This assumption has been a source of litigations often involving those Christian converts and their descendants whose membership of a Scheduled Caste was disputed on account of a change in their religion. The Supreme Court had upheld the assumption that the presence of caste was contingent on religion. However, its understanding of the relationship of caste with religion in the subsequent decades witnessed major shifts. The influence of this new understanding was reflected in its recent judgments when it adjudicated on the pleas of those descendants who were trying to recover the membership of castes which their ancestors had seemingly lost following their conversion to Christianity.

In conclusion, An EPW editorial on the issues that conversion raises:

Those opposing conversion perceive it as subversion, an atrocity, as ‘adharma’. Those promoting conversion consider it primarily to be enlightening, saving others by sharing their convictions and beliefs, though it may also be for the converts a protest against oppression, religious and secular, as an aspiration for betterment, spiritual and otherwise. It is always a complex process of changing social identities and affirming human dignity, though too often their agency goes unacknowledged even when the converts actually do suffer for their dharmantar. Converts, like all human beings, do have mixed motives, but this does not negate their free agency. Rather than struggle to maintain the old status quo, a constructive approach would be responsive politics and economic equity, religious reform and cultural renewal. Protection against proselytisation is today rightly seen as a response to a community’s right to its own religious tradition, much in the same way as the right to its own language and culture. Yet if their concern is only over religious conversions and not the wretched situation of their people, can opposition to their conversion be justified on religious grounds? What kind of religious community would be indifferent to the misery of its oppressed members and yet be opposed to them wanting to leave it? What is being affirmed and what negated here?

 

Further Readings

South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. “Anti-Conversion Laws: Challenges to Secularism and Fundamental Rights.” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 2 (2008): 63–73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40276904.

Ramesh Kamble. “Contextualising Ambedkarian Conversion.” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 41 (2003): 4305–8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4414127.

Iyadurai, Joshua. “Religious Conversion: A Psychospiritual Perspective.” Transformation 31, no. 3 (2014): 189–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/90008219.

Gupta, Charu. “Intimate Desires: Dalit Women and Religious Conversions in Colonial India.” The Journal of Asian Studies 73, no. 3 (2014): 661–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43553340.

Sarah Claerhout, and Jakob De Roover. “The Question of Conversion in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 28 (2005): 3048–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4416875.

 

 

 

 

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