Religious Conversion

By Astha Pratik, NUJS

INTRODUCTION

The word conversion is said to be as old as religion itself and any study of religion is incomplete without studying about religious conversions as well. Our group is dealing with the interplay between law and religion and this project shall be focusing on religious conversions.

Religious conversion “points to the phenomenon that is associated with personal and communal metamorphosis” [i] However this is a very spiritual definition of the word and is not how a vast majority of people in India understand conversion.  In popular usage, religious conversion refers to” the adoption, wholesale, 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 affiliate with another”.[ii]

The following is a summary of the issues that shall be addressed-

1. What are the causes of conversion? And which cause is most relevant in the Indian context?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of conversion?

3. Whether the right to freedom of propagation includes right to conversion?

4. Anti-conversion laws in India and the special provisions with regard to women, children, and people from scheduled caste and scheduled tribes.

5. Whether the government should regulate religious conversion?

CAUSES OF CONVERSION

  1. Active conversion by free choice due to change in beliefs.
  2. Conversion for convenience.
  3. Marital Conversion i.e. conversion for marrying a person of another.
  4. Forced conversion.
  5. Secondary conversion i.e. conversion due to a pre-existing relationship with another convert.
  6. Deathbed conversion i.e. conversion shortly before dying which may or may not be the completion of a conversion process already underway.

In the Indian scenario convenience is the most important cause for religious conversion. Often religious conversions are insincere and prompted not by any change in beliefs but for trivial reasons such as for gaining admission in institutions that favor people of a certain religion. A large percentage of religious converts in India belong to the lower castes such as Hindu Dalits who convert to caste-less religions such as Christianity or Islam to escape the cast divide and all the other problems that accompany it.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

Conversion from a religion like Hinduism, in which caste plays a pivotal role in religions like Islam and Christianity, which do not differentiate on the basis of caste, has both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are quite obvious and include freedom from the limitations imposed by society on the lower castes that prevent them from realizing their true potential and restrict their opportunities in the name of tradition and do not let them rise from their life of poverty, deprivation, and exploitation.

Conversion allows them to break free of the shackles that bind them to their misery and the feeling of being unworthy and lower than others, of being treated as second-class citizens and being made to carry on menial work generation after generation without receiving any appreciation or recognition from society.

“We did not convert because we are poor. If I am poor but accepted by my community, there is no [social] terror in that poverty… We did not convert for money. We converted because of the society that saw us as lesser, not worthy. We were ‘lower caste’, ‘untouchable’, ‘and lowly’. Now we are Christian. Our god wants us. We can walk into his temple. We are worthy. You understand?”

[Spoken by a Dalit convert in Orissa. Quoted in Violent Gods by Angana P. Chatterji, Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2009][iii]

However, conversion also has its disadvantages. Hindu Dalits that convert to other religions lose their affirmative action benefits. They are no longer entitled to the seats reserved for them in Government offices and Government funded educational institutions.  Jobs and admissions granted to them under the quota shall be taken back on conversion. Supporters of this policy claim that since their new religions are caste-less there is no discrimination and hence no inequity. These people are no longer at a disadvantage and therefore don’t need to claim these privileges.

“Any Dalit caught abandoning Hinduism for Christianity or Islam loses these (affirmative action) privileges, and can be fired from jobs gained under the quota. The rules are enforced by vigilant local officials who keep a close eye on villagers’ comings and goings.”[iv]

WHETHER RIGHT TO CONVERSION FALLS WITHIN RIGHT TO PROPAGATION OF RELIGION?

Article 25(1) of the Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen the freedom to practice, profess and propagate any religion of their choice. However, whether religious conversion falls within the ambit of right to propagate one’s religion has long been a bone of contention. While on one hand there are those who argue that propagation includes conversion of people from one religion to the other therefore right to conversion is implicit in the right to freedom of religion. There can be another interpretation of this right as well.

“In a prominent case challenging the validity of the Madhya Pradesh[v] and Orissa[vi] Acts, Chief Justice A.N. Ray in and others ruled that propagation is different from conversion. Adoption of a new religion is freedom of conscience, while conversion would impinge on `freedom of choice’ granted to all citizens alike”.[vii]

ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS IN INDIA AND SPECIAL PROVISIONS WITH REGARD TO WOMEN, CHILDREN AND PEOPLE FROM SCHEDULED CASTE AND TRIBES

Anti-conversion laws in India criminalize the conversion of people by the means of force, inducement, allurement and fraudulent tactics. People aiding in such conversions are also liable to be punished.

Currently, anti-conversion laws are in force in five states: Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat. Similar laws have been passed in Arunachal Pradesh, but are yet to be implemented.

The state of Madhya Pradesh enacted the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swantantrya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) in 1968 which was amended in 2006.

In 1968, Orissa enacted a similar Act. After which the Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules were Enacted In 1989 that amended the previous Act.

The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat followed the same tradition and enacted similar laws, but with varying penalties, in 1978, 2002, and 2003, respectively. However, Tamil Nadu subsequently repealed it in 2006 the one in Arunachal Pradesh has never been implemented.

All these laws are however harsher in case of forced conversion of women, children, Dalits, and other tribal outcasts. The rationale behind this being that all these groups are considered “inherently naive and susceptible to manipulation. Innately weak and credulous”

WHETHER THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD REGULATE  RELIGIOUS CONVERSION?

Supporters of government intervention in religious conversions argue that the law only prohibits forced conversions and does not prevent voluntary conversion. Moreover, they claim that that marginalized groups fall prey to the lure of immediate monetary gains and in cases such as these no actual, genuine change in religion can be said to have occurred.

Critics of Government interference counter these claims by saying that religion being a personal choice the state has no jurisdiction over religious freedom. Changing one’s religion is a private act falls outside the ambit of governance. They also claim that the present anti-conversion laws are ambiguous and open to misuse and are subject to flagrant misuse of power by the authorities in charge of judging whether or not a conversion was forcible.

Formatted on February 20th, 2019.

[i] Faizan Mustafa & Anurag Sharma, Conversion: Constitutional and Legal Implications 21 (2003)

[ii] Wikipedia, Religious Conversion, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_conversion, last seen on 8/10/2014.

[iii] Tomichan Matheikal, Identity And Religious Conversion , Countercurrents.org

28 May, 2009 http://www.countercurrents.org/matheikal280509.htm, last seen on 8/10/2014.

[iv] Yaroslav Trofimov, In India, ‘Untouchables’ Convert To Christianity — And Face Extra Bias, Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119014428899931394.html, last seen on 8/10/2014.

[v] Reverend Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1977 SC 908)

[vi]  Yulitha v. State of Orissa

[vii] Justice M.N. Rao ,Freedom Of Religion And Right To Conversion, http://www.ebc-india.com/lawyer/articles/706.htm, last seen on 8/10/2014.

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