Srinivasan Jain, the popular TV anchor with NDTV, has done a tremendous service to the Constitution of India and thereby, to the people of India! In a hard-hitting exposé on his weekly segment ‘Truth vs Hype’, released on 19 November, Jain talks about the so-called ‘Forced Conversions’ with incontrovertible facts and the falsehoods and myths that are built around the issue! A good part of his expose is an interview with Ashwin Kumar Upadhyay, the petitioner in the current case on ‘forced conversions’ in the Supreme Court.
Jain directly takes on Upadhyay and the 65-page petition submitted by the latter to the Supreme Court. Jain emphatically states that not a single example cited by Upadhyay in the petition comes under the ambit of ‘forced conversion’. In fact, Jain proves that one of the examples is completely fake! Upadhyay however, continues with his rant without being able to authenticate or substantiate or furnish a single bit of evidence to prove his points, as Jain says, in an absolutely ‘flimsy’ petition!
Who is this Ashwin Kumar Upadhyay? He is obviously a member of the BJP and an advocate in the Supreme Court. His claim to fame comes from the several Public Interest Litigations (PILs) he has filed – many of them are apparently frivolous and are summarily dismissed by the Courts and even at one time referred to a PIL as Publicity Interest Litigation. In August 2021, he was arrested in connection with alleged inflammatory and anti-Muslim slogans raised at a protest rally in Delhi – for which permission was not granted by the police!
In April 2021, a three-judge bench of Justices Rohinton F Nariman, B.R. Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy, dismissed a similar ‘forced conversion’ petition by Upadhyay and had even threatened to impose heavy costs if he persisted with the petition. The bench at that time had opined that any religious conversion law would be violative of the constitution as the constitution clearly allows joining of any religion of one’s choice and that’s why the word “propagate” is in the Constitution. The bench termed “very harmful” the petition that asked for a strict central law to check religious conversion and observed that adults are free to choose their faith. The bench also cautioned senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan, who represented Upadhyay in the matter. Upholding Article 25 that allows people to profess, practice and propagate religion, Justice Nariman asked “What kind of a petition is this? This is a very harmful petition. If you are going to argue this, we are going to impose a heavy cost on you”, said Nariman; he added, “There is a reason why the word ‘propagate’ is there in the Constitution. You have to have some meaning for that word. There is no reason why somebody above 18 cannot choose one’s own religion or somebody else’s religion,” The petition was immediately withdrawn!
Some months ago in June 2022, another of Upadhyay’s petitions in the Delhi High Court received the same fate. Marking an observation on the fundamentality of Article 25 of the constitution, Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva said, “(religious)conversion is not prohibited in law. Every person has a right to choose and profess any religion of his/her choice. It is a Constitutional right. If someone is forced to convert, then it’s different issue but to convert is a person’s prerogative.” The bench then asked Upadhyay, “What is the basis for your prayer? There is no material basis on record. No document, no instance. You have given three Supreme Court judgments and rest is your averment”. Clearly taking him on his lies that there are several cases of mass conversion, the bench queried, “You have said mass conversion. Where are statistics? Has any aggrieved come forward?”
Interestingly, on 14 November 2022, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justice M.R. Shah and Justice Hima Kohli, responding to Upadhyay’s latest petition,
directed the Central Government to inform the Apex Court what steps it intends taking to curb deceitful or compulsory religious conversions. The Order states, “The issue with respect to the alleged conversion of religion, if it is found to be correct and true, is a very serious issue which may ultimately affect the security of the nation and violate citizens’ right to freedom of conscience and right to freely profess, practice and propogate(sic) religion. Therefore, it is better that the Union Government may make their stand clear and file a counter on what further steps can be taken by the Union of India and/or others to curb such forced conversion, may be, by force, allurement or fraudulent means”.
Upadhyay demands a Central law against ‘fraudulent religious conversion and religious conversion by intimidation, threatening, deceivingly luring through gifts and monetary benefits’, as it offends Articles 14, 21, and 25. His petition states, “there is not even one district which is free of black magic, superstition and religious conversion… Incidents are reported every week throughout the country where conversion is done by intimidating, threatening, luring through gifts and monetary benefits.” The very fact that the Supreme Court has even agreed to entertain this recent plea is in dire contrast to its vowed position of upholding Article 25. The next hearing is scheduled for 28 November and as the Order states, “Counter, if any, on behalf of the Union of India be filed on or before 22.11.2022.”
The track record of Justice M. R. Shah, clearly shows that he does not have a high degree of credibility in safeguarding the objectivity of the judiciary or for that matter the Constitution of India. It is certainly not prudent for any sitting justice of any Supreme Court to refer to the Prime Minister of one’s country as “the most popular, loved, vibrant and visionary leader”– as he did so in a function in Ahmedabad in February 2021! Earlier in 2018, as
Chief Justice of Patna High Court he termed PM Narendra Modi as a “model and hero”. His closeness both to Modi and Amit Shah is the talk of the town and has also been the subject of controversy and litigation. Justice Shah is due to retire in May 2023, one certainly will not need much of an effort to guess the ‘suitable reward’ which awaits him!
During the course of the hearing on 14 November, Justice Shah apparently said that “people get converted for rice bags!” His statement is entirely fallacious; however, even if there is an iota of truth in it – does he not have the duty to first pull up the Government and question them as to why people are hungry and poor in the country – when the Government splurges on non-essentials like statues and in the jaunts of the Prime Minister??? He needs to pay attention to the fact that India still has the highest number of poor people (almost 229 million) in the world. Besides, India hosts the highest number of poor children. 97 million children (21.8% of Indian children) are poor in the country. The 2019-2021 data revealed that around 16.4 per cent of the Indian population is poor; of these,4.2 % live in extreme poverty since their deprivation score is above 50%. About 18.7% of the population is vulnerable and could be pushed into extreme poverty. Of these, two-thirds fall into the category where one person is at least deprived of nutrition. The ‘Human Development Report 2021-22- Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World’, by the UNDP, India is ranked 132 among 191 countries and territories on the 2021 Human Development Index (HDI). India’s ranking in Global Hunger Index 2022, also released in October, is now a pathetic 107 out of 121 countries!
Upadhyay’s petition also claimed (without any fact), that if forced conversions were not checked, Hindus would soon become a minority in India. (Srinivasan Jain also challenged him on this during the expose, for which Upadhyay had no answer) There could not be a bigger lie than this! One only has to visit the Census data 2011, to realise that the growth rate of minorities is on the decline! Unfortunately, we live in Goebbelsian times: tell a lie a thousand times and people will soon accept it as the truth!
Though there are State anti -conversion laws (which are patently unconstitutional), there is no hard data, to prove any so-called ‘forced’ conversions; no is there any substantial information on cases filed under these laws and convictions made by courts of law and upheld by higher courts. The argument then is that if the state laws have not succeeded, what is the guarantee that a central law would put an end to forced conversions. In January 2021, Madhya Pradesh came up with a stringent ordinance; within the first 23 days, as many as 23 cases were filed alleging forced conversions; none of them have resulted in conviction. There has been just one conviction by the lower court out of sixteen cases under the UP law.
There have also been several incidents of conversion to Hinduism. In 2014, 57 Muslim families with more than 200 members converted to Hinduism in Agra. In 2021, 300 Muslims in Haryana converted to Hinduism. Ironically enough the anti-conversion laws do not seem to apply to them and innocuously referred to as ‘ghar wapasi’ (homecoming). On 5 October, more than 8,000 Dalits left Hinduism and embraced Buddhism in a mass conversion rally in Delhi. A few days later on 14 October, more than 100 Dalit men and women did the same, throwing pictures of Hindu deities into the Krishna River to renounce their faith. The anti-conversion laws basically perpetuate a casteist and patriarchal society
because all of them had been enacted on the premise that women, SCs and STs are vulnerable, need protection and cannot take vital decisions in their life on their own. Embracing another religion away from Hinduism is a clear statement that they want to live a more dignified and humane life and there is absolutely no ‘force’ in their voluntary decision!
The point of the matter however, is not whether one has the right ‘to convert another’ but whether as an adult citizen of India, one has the right to choose a religion of one’s choice. Article 25 of the Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
One also needs to ask: if two mature consenting adults would like to marry each other, what right has the State to stop them from doing so? Then, if a Dalit girl wants to embrace Buddhism, since it is the religion of her husband and will perhaps lead to enhancing the quality of her life, does she have the right to do so? Or for that matter, if a Christian girl wants to freely embrace Islam after marrying a Muslim, does she also have the right to do so? Why should the State (with its brutal mechanism and vigilantes) or anyone else, interfere in matters which are personal and private and clearly violative of Article 21: the right to privacy. On 24 August 2017, the Supreme Court of India in a historic judgement declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right, protected under the Indian Constitution. In declaring that this right stems from the fundamental right to life and liberty, the Court’s decision has far-reaching consequences for every citizen. In an order that is expected to have a significant impact, the very day of the Supreme Court order 14 November, the Madhya Pradesh High Court held that the provision of the state’s anti-conversion law requiring prior notice to a district magistrate for religious conversion violated a person’s fundamental right to life and privacy and so was unconstitutional.
One also needs to take note that addressing a huge gathering of Mahars in Bombay in May 1936, Dr B. R. Ambedkar openly spoke out his ideas on conversion and why he considered it to be the best and only route towards emancipation saying, “I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion; to get human treatment, convert yourselves. Hindu society does not give equality of treatment, but the same is easily achieved by conversion.” Are those in power listening to Ambedkar today?
The ‘forced conversion’ issue is certainly a lie, a ‘bogey’, foisted on the nation! It is clearly meant to defocus from more important and pressing issues plaguing the nation today: which include, the growing impoverishment of the poor, rampant corruption and the total lack of Constitutional governance by those in power! Besides, with elections coming up, a ploy like ‘conversions’ becomes an emotive and manipulative subject! It is left to be seen, that if in keeping with the rights guaranteed in the Constitution and as the nation observes ‘Constitution Week’, whether this two -member bench of the Apex Court will have the courage to stand up for what is right and appropriately penalise the petitioner of such a frivolous and unsubstantiated petition?
(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: email@example.com )