This Article is From Dec 16, 2014

Agra Conversions Are the BJP's Clever Trap

(Pawan Khera is a political analyst with the Congress party.)

Ideology and religion share the same fate. By the time the scripture reaches the believer through layers of vested interpretation, it gets distorted beyond recognition. Same is the case with the ideologue's narrative. The foot soldier of an ideology first demolishes the very essentials of the ideology before embarking on spreading it by force or allurement and eliminating any opposing ideologies.

Law on the other hand is designed to sift the black and white from the gray. But if the law of the land meets the same fate, all is certainly not well with the land or the law or both.

Recent reports of conversions through allurements in Agra bring the oft debated issue of religious conversions back to the fore. Using the Agra issue, the BJP is attempting to push the agenda for an anti-conversion law and the liberals sound confused in criticizing the Agra conversions while also opposing the need for an anti-conversion law in the same breath.

An RSS affiliate has declared a major reconversion ceremony on Christmas in Aligarh. There are several such events being planned in many parts of Uttar Pradesh. This is a clever trap to help build a consensus on enacting an Anti-Conversion Law.

If 'allurement' is in the form of state benefits like an Aadhar and BPL cards and free residential plots etc, fear of not getting the said benefits is an indirect 'force' being proffered in the same argument. In terms of promoting enmity between different groups (Section 153 A of IPC) and using fraudulent means (Section 415 of IPC) the Agra conversions unambiguously violate the law of the land. Where is the need for a separate law?

In the marketplace of competing faiths, under the Indian law, all faiths are free to cart their positive attributes and increase their following. Conversions and reconversions - without the use of force or inducements - are not the domain of the judiciary. 

Historically speaking, conversions were mostly perpetrated by the victor on the vanquished. Rulers' religion automatically got some variant of state patronage and related perks. Religious conversions meant conversion of political leaning too. Where numbers are a significant determinant of political power and patronage, irrespective of which age they happen in, conversions in India can never be apolitical.

When ISCKON converts Christians into its fold, there is no hue and cry in the West. Liberal democracies, where there is a clear distinction between the State and the Church, do not come in the way of 'Freedom to choose one's faith'. This includes conversions.

Legislative journey of conversion laws

Local anti-conversion laws enacted by Princely states like Sarguja, Patna, Udaipur, Raigarh etc got automatically lapsed with the integration of these states into the Indian Union. The Constituent Assembly debates on the subject witnessed extensive arguments on the word 'Propagate'. TT Krishnamachari and KM Munshi elaborated that the word 'propagate' gave the freedom to the Arya Samajis to carry on with their 'Shuddhikaran' and Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs to preach and spread their religion.

Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to 'freely profess, practice and propagate religion'. According to HM Seervai in his authoritative work 'Constitutional Law of India', Article 25(1) not only guarantees "freedom of religion" to which a person is born but includes any religion. "The right to propagate religion gives a meaning to freedom of choice, for choice involves not only knowledge but an act of will. A person cannot choose if he does not know what choices are open to him. To propagate religion is not to impart knowledge and to spread it more widely, but to produce intellectual and moral conviction leading to action, namely the adoption of that religion.'

Three attempts were made in the Parliament to introduce an anti-conversion law. Responding to a debate when the first such Bill was introduced in 1955, Prime Minister Nehru said 'I fear this Bill...will not help in suppressing the evil methods (of gaining converts), but might very well be the cause of great harassment to a large number of people. Also, we have to take into consideration that, however carefully you define these matters, you cannot find really proper phraseology for them'. And then he quotes Sardar Patel from the Constituent Assembly debates, in the same reply 'it is obvious that three committees have considered this matter and have not arrived at any conclusion which is generally accepted. They came to a conclusion that it is better not to have any such thing because they could not find a really adequate formula which could not be abused later on.'
Nehru further adds, 'The major evils of coercion and deception can be dealt with under the general law....a licensing system for propagating a faith is not proper.....would lead in its wake to the police having too large a power of interference'.

There are six states that have enacted anti-conversion laws, Orissa (1967, Swatantra Party), Madhya Pradesh (1968, Govind Narayan Singh who defected from INC), Gujarat (2003, BJP), Himachal Pradesh (2007, INC) and Arunachal Pradesh (1978, INC 'to preserve indigenous faiths'. Rules yet to be framed and law yet to be implemented). Tamil Nadu enacted a similar law in 2002 to appease the NDA government but repealed the law in 2004, after the NDA government was voted out of power. Chattisgarh passed similar legislation in 2006 (BJP). The Rajasthan Assembly passed an Act in 2006, under the BJP government. Presidential assent is still awaited.

The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 and the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968 went through several levels of judicial scrutiny. The Orissa High Court declared the Act passed by the Orissa Assembly ultra vires to the Constitution, as it infringed upon the Right guaranteed by Article 25. The ruling cited Entry 97 of the Union List under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution and stated that the state legislature had no 'legislative competence' to enact such a law on matters concerning religion. The Madhya Pradesh High Court upheld the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act.

In 1977 the Supreme Court heard appeals against these two verdicts in Rev. Stainislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh and Others. The five member Bench considered the literal meaning of the word 'propagate' and upheld the two Acts. Interpreting the SC verdict, HM Seervai says "Ray CJ (Chief Justice AN Ray) mistakenly believed that if 'A' deliberately set out to convert 'B' by propagating 'A's religion, that would impinge on 'B's freedom of conscience. But as we have seen, the precise opposite is true: 'A's propagation of his religion with a view to its being accepted by 'B' gives an opportunity to 'B' to exercise his free choice of a religion".

The anti-conversion laws enacted by some states have vague and arbitrary definitions of 'fraud', 'force', 'allurement' and 'inducement'.They give sweeping powers to the local authorities while impinging on legitimate propagation of one's faith and undermine individual freedoms as guaranteed under the Constitution.

Any law against conversions defies not just the Constitution but also several International obligations, of which India is a part. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination signed by India. 

If unsubstantiated promises of Moksha, Jannat and Heaven fall in the category of inducement/ allurement and if fear of 'divine displeasure' is defined as 'force', the word 'Propagate' should be abrogated from Article 25(1) of our Constitution, rendering 'Shuddhi'/'Ghar Vaapsi', 'Baptism' and 'Kalma' to convert illegal

The plethora of Deras and Ashrams strewn across the country often resort to temporal temptations to market their interpretations of various belief systems. Allurements in the form of faith healing or fulfillment of material desires and force in the form of fear of loss of the same are liberally used to influence the threshold-convert and the neo-convert.

The interplay of multiple disparities make India appreciate the gray zone. Conversions are one such example, where a clear black and white can only complicate the issue further and disturb the fine social balance achieved after much strife and struggle. Will the upper caste echelons of RSS agree to conversion of Dalits into the Brahminical fold? Will they accept matrimonial alliances with those being reconverted into Hinduism?

The famous Meenakshipuram conversions of 1981 saw prosperous Dalits embracing Islam due to continued social ostracism, despite their economic well-being acquired after lucrative job stints in the Middle East. If protagonists of a religion are worried about being at the dirty end of the conversion stick, they should assess the regressive reasons why their religion gets rejected and not seek to hide behind laws that further make the society regressive. 

If there should be a law to ban conversions, should there also be a legislation to stop members of one political ideology to shift to another? Should there also be a ban on divorce?

The demand for such legislation stems from insecurity and leads to stagnation.

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