India is home to multiple religious beliefs and practices, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. In the past, the country has been known for not only its diversity but also tolerance. It is widely believed that because of this tolerance, religions that originated in other countries/regions flourished in India. However, the use of religion in political mobilisation has over the last three decades led to the Indian society being polarised and witnessing communal violence. One of the narratives that has long been used is that members of the Christian and Muslim minorities engage in forceful conversions. As a result, several state governments have enacted Freedom of Religion Acts, commonly known as anti-conversion laws.
- Intimation: Prior Permission and Post-Intimation
- Punishments in Contravention of the Laws
The history of the Freedom of Religion Acts dates back to the 1930s during British rule when some “princely states” enacted them.[i] Post-independence, several bills were introduced to regulate religious conversions nationally, which, however, failed to pass the parliament.
The first one to be introduced was the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill in 1954, which sought to enforce “licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials.” This was followed by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960, which aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to “non-Indian religions,” identified in the Bill as Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. In 1979, a Freedom of Religion Bill sought “official curbs on inter-religious conversion.”[ii]
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was strongly opposed to a national law regulating religious conversions. He has been quoted as saying:
“I fear this bill… will not help very much 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… The major evils of coercion and deception can be dealt with under the general law. It may be difficult to obtain proof but so is it difficult to obtain proof in the case of many other offences, but to suggest that there should be a licensing system for propagating a faith is not proper. It would lead in its wake to the police having too large a power of interference.”[iii]
However, some states succeeded in enacting anti-conversion laws thanks at least partly to the controversial Niyogi Committee Report on Christian Missionary Activities, published by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1956.
The Committee, chaired by M. Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, a retired Chief Justice of the Nagpur High Court, included five other members – M.B. Pathak, Ghanshyam Singh Gupta, S.K. George, Ratanlal Malaviya and Bhanu Pratap Singh.
The report recommended “legal prohibition” of religious conversions that are not “completely voluntary.” It further recommended that “any attempt by force or fraud, or threats of illicit means or grants of financial or other aid, or by fraudulent means or promises, or by moral and material assistance, or by taking advantage of any person’s inexperience or confidence, or by exploiting any person’s necessity, spiritual (mental) weakness or thoughtlessness, or, in general, any attempt or effort (whether successful or not), directly or indirectly to penetrate into the religious conscience of persons (whether of age or underage) of another faith, for the purpose of consciously altering their religious conscience or faith, so as to agree with the ideas or convictions of the proselytizing party should be absolutely prohibited.”[iv]
The first of the post-independence anti-conversion law – Orissa Freedom of Religion Act – came into force in 1967. A year later, in 1968, the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhinayam was enacted. The Madhya Pradesh law was mimicked by the state of Arunachal Pradesh as the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Indigenous Faith Act of 1978. However, its Rules are yet to be framed, as a result of which the Act has never been implemented.
In the year 2000, when Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh as a separate state, it adopted the anti-conversion law as the Chhattisgarh Dharma Swatantrya Adhinayam, 1968.
In 2002, the Tamil Nadu state assembly passed the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance. However, it was withdrawn in 2004.[v]
In April 2006, the BJP-led government in Rajasthan passed a similar freedom of religion bill. However, assent of the President of India is still awaited after the Bill was forwarded to the President by the then Governor of Rajasthan, Pratibha Patil.
In 2006, the Chhattisgarh Dharma Swatantrya Sanshodhan Vidheyak was introduced to make the existing Chhattisgarh Dharma Swatantrya Adhinayam more stringent by enhancing the punishment under the Act and by introducing provisions so as not to treat “reconversion” to one’s ancestors’ religion as conversion as well as requiring permission to be sought from the concerned District Magistrate before a conversion ceremony is performed. However, the assent of the state’s Governor was awaited as of December 2020.
In 2003, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act was enacted. In 2006, the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act came into force. In 2017, the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act was enacted. In 2018, the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act came into force.
In 2019, Himachal Pradesh introduced a new Freedom of Religion Bill to repeal and replace the Act of 2006,[vi] introducing new provisions, including to prohibit conversion by misrepresentation, undue influence, by marriage, etc. The punishments for contravention of the provisions of the new law were also more stringent than the previous law. The Bill was passed and enacted although it included the provisions regarding prior permission and no requirement of notice if a person re-converts to his parent religion that had been struck down by the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2012.[vii]
While all anti-conversion legislations follow the general framework of the first legislation i.e. the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, the later legislations have become harsher and more restrictive, in particular the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act of 2018.
The Freedom of Religion Acts claim to prohibit conversions by force, fraud and inducement/ allurement.
The Acts in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand define conversion as renouncing one religion and adopting another.[viii] The Arunachal Pradesh Act has a minor difference in the definition of conversion. It says that “conversion” means renouncing one religious faith and adopting another religious faith, and that the term (to) “convert” shall be construed accordingly.[ix]
Meanwhile, the Gujarat Act uses the term “convert” rather than “conversion” and defines it as making “one person renounce one religion and adopt another religion.”[x] In 2017, Jharkhand followed the same language and added the term “convert” in its law as well.[xi]
The Uttarakhand Act preferred to use the term “convincing for conversion” and defined it as making one person agree to renounce one’s religion and adopt another religion.[xii]
The term “force” is defined in all the Acts as more or less as “a threat of injury of any kind including the threat of divine displeasure or social ex-communication.”[xiii]
All the Acts use “fraud” and “fraudulent” interchangeably with the same definition as “misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance.”[xiv]
The term “inducement” is defined as “shall include the offer of any gratification, either in cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise” in three of the states,[xv] whereas four of the states use the term “allurement” and defined it as “offer of any temptation in the form of – (i) any gift or gratification either in cash or kind; (ii) grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.”[xvi] The Uttarakhand Act defines the term “allurement” more specifically as “allurement means and includes the offer of any temptation in the form of gift or gratification or material benefit, either in cash or kind or employment, free education in reputed school run by any religious body, easy money, better lifestyle, divine pleasure or otherwise.[xvii]
The Uttarakhand Act has also defined certain terms which are not included in the previous Acts passed by the other seven states. It includes the term “undue influence,” which “means the unconscientious use by one person of his power or influence over another in order to persuade the other to act in accordance with the will of the person exercising such influence.”[xviii] It also defines “religion” as any organised system of faith, belief, worship or lifestyle, as prevailing in India or any part of it, and defined under any law or custom for the time being in force.[xix] Further, it defines “religious priest” as priest of any religion who performs purification Sanskar or conversion ceremony of any religion and by whatever name he is called such as pujari, pandit, mullah, maulvi, father etc.[xx]
Intimation: Prior Permission and Post-Intimation
All the Acts require that a person who is converting or overseeing the religious ceremony of a convert inform the district authorities by completing a form prescribed in the legislation. The intimation can be prior to conversion or in some cases post conversion. In some of the states, the person or religious priest conducting the conversion ceremony is also required to send an intimation either prior to such a ceremony or post conversion.
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