The Evolution And Impact Of Anti-Conversion Laws In India

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Index

  1. Introduction 
  2. The Evolution Of Anti-Conversion Laws In India
  3. The Status And Scope Of Anti-Conversion Laws In India
  4. Arunachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act: Status And Provisions
  5. Odisha
  6. The Madhya Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 1968
  7. Chhattisgarh’s Retention And Attempts To Amend The Freedom Of Religion Act
  8. The Gujarat Freedom Of Religion Act: Provisions, Penalties, And Controversial Amendments
  9. Himachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 2006
  10. Jharkhand Freedom Of Religion Act, 2017: Provisions And Implementation Challenges
  11. Uttarakhand Anti-Conversion Law: Provisions And Response To A Legal Case
  12. Critiques And Challenges Of Anti-Conversion Legislation In India
  13. Conclusion 

Introduction 

Indian state anti-conversion laws have faced criticism for their vague and overly broad language, which conflicts with the fundamental right to freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. These laws often reinforce stereotypes that certain groups and classes of people are more primitive and thus more susceptible to coercion and manipulation. Consequently, anti-conversion laws, like other “protective” laws in this context, are heavily scrutinised for restricting personal freedom and choice.

The purpose of anti-conversion legislation in many Indian states is to limit and possibly prevent forced conversions through enticement. These modern laws trace their origins to various colonial statutes that addressed issues such as public safety, apostasy, and anti-conversion in colonial India. The rationale behind these statutes often relied on assumptions about whether individuals were coerced into converting or did so voluntarily. Today’s anti-conversion laws emphasise two main points. First, the assumption that converts might not have acted of their own free will, and second, that certain groups and classes of individuals are more vulnerable to coercion in matters of conversion.

The Evolution Of Anti-Conversion Laws In India

The earliest anti-conversion laws in India emerged during the colonial period, specifically in the 1930s and 40s, introduced by princely states in response to British missionary activities. These laws aimed to preserve and protect the cultural identity of the princely states. Notable examples include the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act of 1946 and the Raigarh State Conversion Act of 1936, along with similar enactments in Patna, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and other states.

After India gained independence, several anti-conversion bills were proposed, but none were enacted due to lack of popular support. The first such bill, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill of 1954, sought to mandate the registration of conversions and licensing of missionaries but was rejected. A similar bill in 1960, the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill, aimed to limit conversions of Hindus to religions such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism, which it deemed “non-Indian.” Another attempt was the Freedom of Religion Bill of 1979, which sought to restrict inter-religious conversions. Despite these efforts, none of these bills gained parliamentary approval and thus did not become law.

The Status And Scope Of Anti-Conversion Laws In India

The Ministry of Law and Justice has clarified that the enactment of anti-conversion laws is a state prerogative and not feasible at the national level. Consequently, many Indian states have implemented their own anti-conversion laws to regulate and limit conversions resulting from coercion, force, fraud, or other malicious means. States began introducing their Freedom of Religion Acts in the 1960s following several unsuccessful attempts to establish a nationwide anti-conversion statute. Orissa and Madhya Pradesh were the first states to implement these laws.

Currently, only eight of India’s twenty-nine states have active anti-conversion laws. These states are Jharkhand, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and Himachal Pradesh. Other states, such as Manipur, are considering similar legislation, but none have yet enacted it. Notably, Arunachal Pradesh’s anti-conversion laws have not been implemented due to the lack of subsidiary rules.

The anti-conversion laws primarily aimed to curb conversions initiated by Muslims in the 1980s and Christian missionaries in the 1990s, reflecting a common sentiment that such conversions were an extension of Western colonialism. Despite variations in the statutes across different states, the main objective remains consistent: to restrict individuals and communities from converting from their ancestral religion to another. These laws argue that certain groups, particularly women and children, are vulnerable to manipulation and thus require protection through anti-conversion legislation.

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Arunachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act: Status And Provisions

The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act received presidential assent on October 25, 1978, but has yet to be enforced as the state government is still developing the subsidiary rules. This legislation was created to address the perceived threat of conversion faced by indigenous religions. 

Section 3 of the Act states that no individual should attempt to convert anyone else through coercion, fraud, inducement, or force, nor should any person abet such attempts. The Act defines “conversion” as renouncing one’s religion to adopt another, and “convert” should be interpreted accordingly. The term “indigenous faith” encompasses the religious beliefs, rituals, practices, abstinences, festivals, observances, customs, and performances traditionally followed and sanctioned by the indigenous people of the state.

“Force” is defined as causing apprehension of injury, including divine displeasure and the threat of excommunication. “Fraud” is defined as any form of misrepresentation or deception. “Inducement” refers to the promise of any pecuniary, material, or other benefit or gratification.

According to several scholars, the term “conversion” as interpreted under the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act excludes reconversions to native faiths. This aspect has drawn criticism from scholars and human rights organisations, who argue that the law aims to restrict and regulate conversions to other faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, suggesting unequal protection and treatment under the law. However, the Act is not currently in force, and the state government plans to repeal it. The Chief Minister has stated that the law in its present form could be misused by irresponsible officials and demoralises the populace.

Odisha

The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, was the first anti-conversion law enacted in India. Section 3 of the Act prohibits individuals from attempting to convert others through coercion, fraud, inducement, or force, and from abetting such attempts. Violations of this statute are cognizable offences, with “forcible conversion” punishable by up to two years of imprisonment and a fine of up to ₹10,000 under Section 4.

The Act provides definitions for terms used in Section 3 to identify conversion. “Conversion” is defined as renouncing one’s religion to adopt another. 

The Madhya Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 1968

The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, was the second anti-conversion law enacted in an Indian state. It closely resembles other anti-conversion legislation but differs by using the term “allurement” instead of “inducement.” Section 2(a) defines “allurement” as any benefit, gift, or material or pecuniary temptation. 

Violations under this Act are punishable by up to one year of imprisonment and a fine of ₹5,000. If the conversion involves a minor or woman, the penalty increases to up to two years of imprisonment and a fine of ₹10,000. Section 5 requires the presiding priest or any person involved in the conversion to notify the District Magistrate within seven days.

In 1977, the Madhya Pradesh High Court upheld the validity of the Act, contrasting with the Orissa High Court’s stance. The Court ruled that the Act safeguards religious freedom by regulating conversions involving force, allurement, and other malicious means. 

In 2006, an attempted amendment sought to mandate that the presiding priest notify the District Magistrate of the conversion ceremony details one month in advance. Failure to comply would result in a one-year imprisonment or a ₹5,000 fine. Additionally, the person seeking conversion would need to declare their intentions before a Magistrate, with non-compliance resulting in a ₹10,000 fine. The District Magistrate would inform a Police Superintendent, who would investigate and report back. However, this amendment was rejected by the President, as it infringed on religious freedom by requiring prior permission for conversion.

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Chhattisgarh’s Retention And Attempts To Amend The Freedom Of Religion Act

After separating from Madhya Pradesh in 2000, Chhattisgarh retained its parent state’s anti-conversion Act, renaming it the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, along with its subsidiary rules. From 2000 to 2010, the state government made several attempts to tighten these laws. A measure passed in 2006, which sought to redefine “conversion” to exclude reconversions to native faiths, is still awaiting assent. This proposed measure aims to penalise forced conversions more strictly and requires prior permission from a District Magistrate, with a mandatory notice given thirty days before the conversion ceremony.

The requirement for prior permission allows the Magistrate to approve or deny a conversion after an inquiry. The granted permission is valid for only two months and is appealable only to a district judge, whose decision is final and without further recourse. Violating the District Magistrate’s orders would constitute a cognizable offence, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to ₹20,000. Due to the refusal of several presiding Governors to give their assent, the proposed bill is still under review by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Gujarat Freedom Of Religion Act: Provisions, Penalties, And Controversial Amendments

Enacted in 2003, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act aims to prevent conversions by fraudulent means, allurement, or force. Section 3 of the Act, similar to other state anti-conversion laws, criminalises any conversion resulting from these methods.

Unlike other acts, the Gujarat law defines a “convert” as someone who is made to give up their native religion to adopt another, suggesting wrongful coercion. The penalties under this Act are stricter, with imprisonment extending up to three years and fines up to ₹50,000. If the conversion involves a minor or a woman, the punishment increases to four years of imprisonment and a fine up to ₹100,000.

Section 5 mandates prior permission from the person seeking conversion, who must also notify the District Magistrate about the ceremony details. The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Rules, 2008, require this notice within ten days of the ceremony, with non-compliance punishable by up to one year of imprisonment or a fine of ₹1,000, or both.

An amendment introduced on July 21, 2006, sought to redefine “convert” in Section 2(b) to exclude conversions within the same religious denominations. It proposed classifying Jainism and Buddhism as denominations of Hinduism, Shia and Sunni as denominations of Islam, and Catholic and Protestant as denominations of Christianity. This classification was opposed by the Buddhist and Jain communities, leading to the retraction of the bill after the governor returned it for reconsideration.

Himachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 2006

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, came into force on February 18, 2007, closely mirroring other state anti-conversion laws. Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversions resulting from fraudulent means or inducement, rendering any such conversion invalid.

Section 4(1) requires prior notice to the District Magistrate, who may order an inquiry 30 days before the intended conversion. Non-compliance with this requirement incurs a penalty.

Section 5 details penalties for violating Section 3, including imprisonment of up to two years, a fine up to ₹25,000, or both. If the offence involves children, SC/ST individuals, or women, the penalty increases to five years of imprisonment and a fine up to ₹50,000.

Jharkhand Freedom Of Religion Act, 2017: Provisions And Implementation Challenges

The Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act was enacted on August 12, 2017, after examining draft Bills from other states. The legislation aimed to curb forced conversions, citing concerns about missionary activities targeting vulnerable populations. Governor Draupadi Murmu granted assent to the Jharkhand Dharm Swatantra Bill, 2017, passed by the legislative assembly.

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Section 3 of the Act prohibits forced conversions, while Section 4 makes such violations a non-bailable, cognizable offence with penalties of up to three years of imprisonment, a fine of Rs. 50,000, or both. For conversions involving women, SC/ST individuals, or minors, penalties are more severe, with imprisonment up to four years and fines up to Rs. 100,000.

Section 5 requires individuals to seek prior permission from the district magistrate and notify them according to prescribed rules upon conversion. However, implementation faced challenges as Section 1(3) stated immediate enforcement upon issuance, yet subsidiary rules necessary for operation were not issued until February 21, 2018, causing inconsistencies in application.

Uttarakhand Anti-Conversion Law: Provisions And Response To A Legal Case

Following a habeas corpus case involving a marriage-related conversion, the Uttarakhand High Court suggested the introduction of an anti-conversion law to deter sham conversions on November 20, 2017. Responding to this, the state government introduced the Bill on April 18, 2018, four months after the court’s decision.

Section 3 of the Act mirrors similar provisions in other states, prohibiting forced conversions with penalties ranging from one to five years of imprisonment and an unspecified fine. Penalties are increased to seven years of imprisonment and a fine in cases involving women, SC/ST individuals, or children. Notably, reconverts are exempted from the Act’s definition of conversion.

An exceptional feature of Uttarakhand’s anti-conversion laws is its provision regarding marriage-related conversions. Section 6 of the Act declares conversions solely for marriage purposes null and void. Additionally, Section 8 mandates a declaration before a District or Executive Magistrate one month before conversion, requiring the presiding priest to notify the magistrate as well. Failure to comply renders the conversion void and leads to prescribed penalties.

Critiques And Challenges Of Anti-Conversion Legislation In India

The ambiguous and vague terminology used in anti-conversion laws poses a serious risk of misuse, creating loopholes for discriminatory application and infringing on the fundamental right of freedom. These laws, rather than safeguarding minorities, seem more inclined towards overly regulating and restricting conversions.

The definition of conversion varies widely across states, from renouncing one’s native faith to adopting another, to making someone renounce their faith to adopt a new one. This discrepancy leads to differing implications, undermining the legislation’s intended purpose of protecting religious freedom.

Furthermore, the focus on prohibiting conversions in these laws can be misused by authorities to oppress and discriminate against minority groups. Terms like force, allurement, inducement, and fraud used to identify illegal conversions can encroach upon the religious rights of certain communities, particularly in interpreting activities like proselytization, which are protected under the Constitution.

The interpretation of Article 25, which guarantees the right to profess and propagate religion while subjecting it to restrictions, presents another challenge. Balancing the regulation of sham conversions with preserving an individual’s right to choose and propagate their religion remains a complex and contentious issue within these legislations.

Conclusion 

The current anti-conversion laws in India raise concerns about their potential threat to the country’s secular fabric and its international image regarding intrinsic values and legal principles. These laws appear to be driven by religious ideologies and primarily impact religious minorities negatively, despite their intended purpose of minority protection. They result in curtailment of certain aspects of personal freedom while promoting others, raising questions about our commitment to constitutional values like secularism.

Indian secularism, known for its adaptability and durability among diverse cultural groups, faces challenges due to the existence and implementation of these laws. The cultural divisions they create are a persistent issue, highlighting the need for a balanced approach that respects individual rights while upholding constitutional principles.

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