Sriram Balasubramanian
Debate Conversion As Well As Reconversion

Postponing a thorough exchange of views on the issue merely prolongs the agony of all communities concerned.

The legislative history of legislation on religious conversions dates back to the Pre-independence era. Even though the British colonialists were averse to the idea, for obvious reasons, many princely states enacted anti-conversion legislations: the Raigarh State Conversion Act 1936, the Patna Freedom of Religion Act of 1942, the Sarguja State Apostasy Act 1945 and the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act 1946. The issue of conversion in India has always been a contentious subject. Recently, it has gained more traction in the background of the “Ghar Wapasi” controversy. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement, wherein he pitched for a discussion on a proposed anti-conversion Bill after addressing the Minorities Commission in New Delhi, rather aggravated the situation. This, when it was perhaps meant to be seen as a move that could placate the growing concern about ‘religious intolerance’ in India.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, had said the following regarding religious conversions: “I hold that proselytising under the cloak of humanitarian work is, to say the least, unhealthy. It is most certainly resented by the people here.”

Post-independence, the Parliament took up this issue in 1954 when it debated the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill and then later in 1960, when it discussed the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill. Both of these could not pass due to the lack of adequate support. While the Centre had been by and large silent on this issue, the states took a proactive step in adopting these laws. In 1967-68, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh enacted local laws called the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 and the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam 1968. Along similar lines, the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, was enacted for the prohibition of conversion from one religious faith to another by use of force, inducement or fraudulent means and for matters connected therewith. Tamil Nadu enacted the law as late as 2002, making conversion under duress or inducement a cognisable offence under Section 295 A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code.

These legislations make two things very prominent. One, this has been a consistent issue over a long period of time and it needs to be addressed through a central mechanism that is bipartisan. Second, the issue has not been dealt with decisively; it has lingered on for decades for fringe elements to exploit it. This makes it more pertinent, especially in the present context of social tensions.

A conversion based on force is an act that needs to be curbed, especially when it is run as a money-minting exercise with extraordinary wealth involved with it. As mentioned in the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights) accord, in which India was one of the signatories, Point 2 in Article 18 states “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. This is in line with Article 25 of our Constitution.

Moreover, there is a national security angle to this. A recent article in a mainstream news and views website indicates that the US government could be indirectly funding Christian missionaries in India through the FBOs (Faith Based Organisations), which are viewed as key players in the propagation of the American soft power. The report seems to suggest that the money for US FBOs, which are predominantly funded by USAID for humanitarian work, could be transferred to proselytising since the distinction between humanitarian work and converting the same section of people in the name of service is rather vague. In another critique, Lee Mardsen, Professor of International Affairs at University of East Anglica, the UK, mentions that the US has been adopting a “faith based foreign policy” and that very few Islamic organisations receive such aid. There are questions raised by the author if it overrules the second amendment, which segregates the “church and the state”.

In this context, we need to address the core issue of forced conversions. First,  the legislative part of the issue. This is an issue which concerns all communities and needs to be foremost debated in the Parliament, as suggested by the home minister. Leaving the debate inconclusive would lead to it’s misuse by fringe elements across communities to propagate their agendas and also have national security consequences which are detrimental to the growth of the nation. The government should form, besides the Parliamentary Standing Committee once the draft bill is placed, a sub-committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, with leading religious leaders from all faiths giving their inputs on how to proceed with the legislation.

Secondly, the Bill must have provisions to ensure that forced conversion alone is prohibited and voluntary conversions, in line with Article 25 without commercial benefits, are acceptable to the law of the land. The new law should not be like the Act in states like Chhattisgarh, where an additional confirmation is required by a government authority to legalise the conversion.

Thirdly, it must also ensure that re-conversion to any religion, including Hinduism, through coercion is made illegal. Most critiques of the Bill state that if conversion by force to other religions is prohibited, what about re-conversion (post giving up their religion to which they converted) into religions such as Hinduism by coercion? (assuming it exists for arguments sake). Unlike the Acts in the states, this should be made clear that conversion and re-conversion by force to any religion is prohibited. In addition, critics also feel that anti-conversion bill chorus is a broader conspiracy to propagate the Hindutva agenda across India by creating this artificial outrage. The Bill needs to be very clear in addressing this as an issue that affects everybody in the country (given how many communities are affected by the forced conversion syndrome etc).

In retrospect, these suggestions would ensure that there is a certain amount of amicability within all sections to address a recurring issue in our society for the past century. Running away from this debate will just procrastinate the issue.