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Religious conversion, freedom of religion or belief: Appraisal of anti-conversion laws

By Rachel I Dsilva* 

Anti-conversion legislations in India have been enacted in several states, including Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. BJP led governments has done this citing the issue of fraudulent mass conversions to Islam and Christianity. 
India's population data, however, do not support the conspiracy of mass conversions to Christianity and Islam used to justify anti-conversion laws and no individual has ever been convicted of the crime of forced conversion. These anti-conversion laws, and the false narratives about religious minorities used to justify their enactment, have significantly contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom in India. This article discusses how legislation curbing religious freedom is a growing threat. 
Madhya Pradesh's Anti Conversion law sets the terms of forceful religious conversions if found guilty with a jail term of one to five years and imprisonment and a fine of 25, 000 rupees. These punishments are increased to two to ten years imprisonment and a fine of 50, 000 rupees for individuals caught forcefully converting minors, women, or individuals belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Since the Anti-Conversion Laws were passed in the seven states in India constraints on the Freedom of Religion or Belief of people have increased in many ways. 

What are the Anti- conversion legislations?

These laws restrict individual conversions from one religion to another. They could threaten the fundamental rights of people if they go against individual freedom to religious conversion. There are many reasons why religious conversions happen such as change in a belief, or an event relating to one's life conversions have also taken place for marriage or based on one's wishes, or sometimes these are based on someone else's wishes or outer demands. If laws restrict religious conversions’ they go against inner freedom guaranteed by International Human Rights discourses and deliberations. 

Are the laws violating Individual freedoms?

The laws are passed amidst the present context of the majoritarian states that restrict individual freedom to religious conversion. The laws operate against the interests of those who would want to leave a particular religion or those who may be found to be proselytizing or recruiting from other religions to their religious groups. If people are found converting or engaging in religious conversions that are against states' wish to maintain uniformity in the practice of religion among people they can be penalized. And the penalties imposed can be civil or criminal varying from state to state. 

Are individual rights affected due to laws?

In a wider context of development, social cohesion, and rights-holding citizens it affects the minority religions. This is because the laws divide the people into religious groups or groups of individuals based upon their religion or which religion they are following or may intend to follow and they do not help the people to freely choose a religion as per their conscience or choice or inner voice and freedom. It suppresses persons or people of minority religions if their rights are not protected to proselytize or stand up for their beliefs if they face any persecution. 

Are these laws protecting the cultural and social cohesion in the wider context? 

In the areas of individual freedom and democracy the Constitution of India guarantees the Freedom of Religion in Articles 25 and 26 in the country. It is believed that anti-conversion laws are needed to protect the cultural and social cohesion of a particular community or society in a wider context. It creates a disharmonious society if the laws are not necessary in the interest of empowering the citizens to freely practice or profess religion locally which helps the individuals earn their common goals or interests and concerns in the true spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity thus creating a society based on these goals. 

Do these laws create local conflict?

Anti conversion laws meant to avoid conflict between people fail to safeguard the socioeconomic and cultural rights of individuals that should be given to all citizens for their development. If the laws should help people from being coerced or deceived, people should be able to use their fundamental rights to seek remedies to protect themselves from any coercion or deception. People's rights are abused when they are attacked by discrimination atrocities or violations and not due to forcible conversions. These attacks need to be prevented by law enforcement. And people's local freedom needs to be ensured even despite the other obstacles. 

Are the laws violating the freedom of choice? 

 to the Constitution, every person has a right to profess, practice, and spread their religion. The Anti-conversion laws restrict Freedom of Religion and Belief. People are protected by the ICCPR and the States and their organs are legally bound to ensure the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in Article 18 of the covenant given to rights holders. The present policies violate the freedom to change one's religion, which is integral to human rights. The Constitution guarantees the people freedom to profess, practice, and propagate any religion. It also grants religious groups the right to control their religious affairs, subject to public morality, health, and order. The religious conversion is not subject to any national restriction or regulation. Though Union Law Ministry stated in 2015 that Parliament lacks the legislative authority to enact legislation prohibiting conversion several states passed Freedom of Religion laws prohibiting forced, fraudulent, or coerced conversions to another religion over the years. Individuals seeking to convert to another religion must obtain permission from governments before doing so. Even though some of the states have more stringent Anti-conversion legislations than the others they all place some or the other policy-based restrictions on individual freedom to convert. Some states have provisions in legislation by which activities of religious groups or individuals may be targets of suppression of them or such activities. The SC has ruled Anti-Conversion laws are Constitutional as long as they are not used to interfere with an individual right to Freedom of Religion. However, there have been cases in which these laws have been used to target and persecute minority religious groups. 

Politics of religious conversion

These legislations that restrict freedom of choice can be used to counter the religious activities by minority religions. There are religious groups discriminated against because of the growing violence against them after the laws were passed. Many of these laws affect Christians who are followers of minority religions in the larger landscape of religions. And these laws have been used against religious groups to persecute the followers of minority religions. Even though they are being justified as a preventive measure against coercion and manipulation in religious conversion the growing evidence shows them being used as a pretext to suppress religious freedom. They can impede in exercise of Religious Freedom and support false narratives of Forced Conversions or forcible conversions against one particular religious group. The question of politics in the name of religion gives rise to opposing political views between the nationalists who claim nationalism and the others as members of a group. 

False narratives 

The reasons why false narratives are popular are religious conversions to non-Hindu faiths by fraudulent means and the non-Hindu religious activity being equated with forced or fraudulent conversions. The popularity of violence due to religious conversions in Madhya Pradesh is not just a phenomenon of the times, it is increasing. 

Laws and the shrinking freedoms

The disharmony is caused in society is because conversion of religion must seek the approval of the state which involves an investigation into the conversion and a waiting period. A fraudulent conversion is labelled as forced conversion. 

Growing victimization of religious minorities

The thinking of the Hindu nationalist voters is the fraudulent conversion by Christians and Muslims. There is an intensification of discrimination, social exclusion, which needs to have more interfaith and caste harmony based on true inclusion. Religious minorities face growing discrimination in the context of nationalism. The attacks on religious minorities have dramatically increased since 2014 and policies enacted that curtail religious freedom. Eight persons were arrested in Madhya Pradesh under Anti-conversion Law, 1968 for kidnapping and attempting to convert 6o children after the parents of the children had given consent for them to be accompanied to summer Bible camp. False accusations against Christians of forced conversion in Jharkhand on September 23, 2020. The Anti-conversion law is a weapon radicals use against Christians. In most cases, police arrest the victim who has been assaulted simply because radicals claim the Christian was involved in religious conversion. Social hostility in a wider societal context has an impact on the communities. The instances of attack on Christians are suppression, persecution, harm, fear, and terror leading to violence through attacks and persecution. 

Lessons from Constitution framers

‘Annihilation of Caste’ by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is a critique of the political power granted to Hindus without any social change or inclusion of Dalit voices into decision-making in response to the idea of political reform that was demanded through the Constitution. He clearly stated political reform in India must be preceded by social reform and more so if Constitutional values i.e. liberty, equality, and freedom were to be made a reality for the majority of people. If the majoritarian political decisions depart from the practice of protecting the Constitutional values then political reform will be meaningless.
If Freedom of Religion has to be safeguarded there should be dialog on the implications of having these legislations in the state especially its effect on human rights and the majority of people's freedom of religion in those states. Policies need not just be based on utilitarian principles benefiting a higher number of people if they repeatedly fail to protect religious freedom across the country. There should be an independent body to monitor the performance of the legislation and measure its impact on the local community in the states and social groups or classes across the breadth of a country.
*Researcher associated with Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Movement



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